Acquisition Sustainability Within a Globalized Industrial Base

NOV. 2, 2020 | by Don O’Neill, DAU News

The superiority of the nation’s defense depends on the knowledge, skills, and behaviors of the people involved in program acquisition, both government and industry. In government, the Senior Executive Service (SES) personnel capability is the point of the spear. Yet it is being blunted and hollowed out through increasing retirements. Replacement personnel need to possess knowledge in STEM (science, technology, and especially engineering and mathematics) as well as liberal arts such as language, culture, and history. And they need a new way of thinking to cope with the continual challenges of creative disruption.

Not everyone can know everything in the complex world of technology; therefore, government needs to determine what is needed and where it can be found in the global technological ecosystem. And industry needs to be expert in how it is provided and incorporated in the defense supply chain at zero marginal cost. Both industry and government personnel need superior skills and behavior in collaboration and team innovation management.

Just how did the Defense Industrial Base morph into a globalized industrial base and what are the implications?

Macro View

The defense industry has grown with tremendous and often disruptive changes from the rapid output of the World War II shipbuilding arsenals to a commercialized defense with the likes of IBM and General Electric and from there to the consolidated defense specialists such as L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, and General Dynamics. The clash of creative disruption with hard-to-change government and military cultures now calls for a fundamental shift if the United States is to maintain military superiority and not simply accept a level playing field.

In this new model, defense needs to be the importer of technology, unlike earlier when the Department of Defense exported technologies such as the Internet and the Global Positioning System (GPS). There are numerous trends, disruptive effects, and consequences associated with the defense transition from the 20th to the 21st century—some more important than others. Genuine drivers and game changers are most consequential, such as digitization, robotics, 3D manufacturing, diffusion, communication, resistant bureaucracy, hollowing out, political interests, and willful failure to adapt. Some factors take the form of rationalized explanations, perhaps even excuses—such as dual use, low cost of entry, export controls, spending limits, regulation, intellectual property protection, and business certainty.

Strategically Thinking

The changing technology and its ease of diffusion are high-impact driving factors. Neither is under the control of government or industry. Both are driven by competitiveness and unpredictable market forces with very low prospects for control. An unchanging government bureaucracy and entrenched politics are consequences of a willful failure to adapt. The remedy is to revitalize the people and renovate their behavior, re-envision the future, alter the strategic course, and make the necessary commitment to adapt.

Just what constructive actions are possible? Taken altogether, the tenets of a strategic framework for creative disruption going forward might include focusing on software as the central element of innovation, renovating the government SES systems and software program acquisition capability, and renovating the Defense Industrial Base integration engineering capability. It also could involve restructuring the roles of government and industry partners on commercial technology acquisition; the domain-specific application of emerging commercial technology; and the high-risk, high-reward upstream exploitation of scientific technology more typical of the independent scientific advisory groups in years past.

The following issues need to be explicitly placed on the government plate and periodically reviewed: adaptive bureaucracy reform, regulatory approaches on export control and intellectual property, personnel hollowing out, research and development spending, austerity, and industry uncertainty. The following issues need to be explicitly placed on defense industry’s plate and periodically reviewed: competitiveness, innovation, rapid diffusion, risk management, and fixed-price contracting.

Operational View

How do we operationalize this macro view and fundamental shift? The answer is to invest in the knowledge, skills, and behaviors of people, including STEM, liberal arts, and collaboration. For government, this investment must begin with the renovation of its SES personnel capability while focusing on what gets done and letting industry decide how it is done. The Defense Industrial Base needs to increase investments in integration engineering and the transformation of data and information into the knowledge and insight that feed innovation. This also will guide the demand and selection of the technologies from anywhere in the globalized industrial base that underlie the Next Big Thing and sequence their arrival in the defense supply chain where capabilities are coupled and mashed up, interfaced and integrated, tested and experimented, and operationalized and deployed. The result is a smart and trusted supply chain for systems and software.

Imperative for Industry

This fundamental shift, driven by the macro and operational views and new strategic thinking described, requires not only cooperative and skillful collaboration among government and industry acquisition personnel but also harmonization of disciplines of systems engineering and software engineering. These disciplines underlie the systems and software program acquisition and a way of thinking that bridges systems and software engineering. This bridge includes producers and consumers organized around form, fit, and function. Systems engineers have the primary responsibility for function, including the opportunity value proposition, application domain knowledge, requirements, specifications, and system architecture. Acting as consumers of the systems engineering work products, software engineers take prime responsibility for form and fit, including software system architecture composed of nodes and arcs, computer resource loading and scheduling analysis, and iterative design and incremental release strategies. As systems engineers and software engineers interact and mutually refine these form, fit, and function work products, the result is an integration engineered value-added, systems product.

Imperative for Government

The increasing retirement of personnel and the growing disconnect between Department of Defense (DoD) needs and the industrial base capabilities are hollowing out the SES capability. Cross-discipline collaboration and the SES retirement bubble invite an initiative to renovate the SES capability associated with systems and software acquisition. An organization in danger of falling behind the competition is a prime candidate to become a fast follower of innovative technology. DoD is just such an organization.

Sustainability of Software Systems

The key to the sustainability of software systems is organizational will and management commitment of personnel resources, funding both short term and long, and allocating assets associated with needed people, process, and tools. Software sustainability relies on continuous integration engineering.

Integration engineering is the process of creating a coherent system from its components, both hardware and software, such that at each stage of integration the evolving system exhibits increased functional capability, while remaining under firm intellectual control. Integration is a major managerial, technical, and logistical task, requiring the combined efforts of people skilled in systems engineering, hardware engineering, software engineering, and integration engineering. In large systems, software may be the principal integrating element.

While not always the center of attention, the focus on software sustainability is paced by project success, incidents of failure, and user demand for the fielded software systems. In short, software sustainability may be erratic and progress in fits and starts. As a result, software sustainability is best approached as a series of 5-year projects triggered by external events.

In recognizing the nature of software sustainability as one of successive refreshment and renovation of process, people, product, and tools, software sustainability capability must include the skills to perform multi-dimensional 5-year planning cycles periodically spanning process, management, and engineering. Improving process maturity will help the organization sustain the necessary repeatable pattern of frequency of release and requirements stability and control. Improving people skills and workforce capability and capacity will position the organization to address future challenges. This can be done by raising employee morale, controlling staff churn--and through vendor stability and control, supply chain trustworthiness, selective outsourcing, and renovation of senior executives.

The mix of sustainable product sourcing options spanning commercial off-the-shelf, open-source, legacy code, and new development will improve usability, interoperability, requirements traceability, version coordination, technology migration, and product resiliency. Improving the mix of tools will assist in version coordination and modernization and deliver needed labor reductions and quality increases. Improving process, people, product, and tools will deliver the outcomes sought in frequency of release, scaling up, continuous integration engineering, requirements management and traceability, and usability. Improving and refreshing the way of working will focus attention on the shared vision of the value proposition, requirements that matter most to users, architecture modernization, and the standard of excellence for completeness, correctness, and consistency.

The Case for Situational Management

Let’s conclude with a discussion of situational management and thinking, one that deals with today and its challenges. Management principles frame thinking distilled from past challenges and successes. But innovation and change are today’s mantras, so problem solving decidedly tilts toward the specific current situation.

Situational thinking enables “a go with the flow” approach. Inside the box, commoditized prescriptions and compliant behaviors do nothing but limit and constrain the response to issues and problems. Outside the box, situational thinking relies on thinking in a broader context that fosters innovation.

Agile approaches have adopted situational thinking and have demonstrated innovative outcomes. Here customer need and solution value proposition populate the situation awareness landscape. Other approaches, such as the Capability Maturity Model Integration (CMMI), are entrenched in program management principles derived from earlier days and tied to compliance. Much situation awareness is imported from the static context of the model framework itself and precisely delivered at a mature level—all of which impedes innovation.

In situational thinking to solve hard problems that demand using deep technology in a systems context, it is advisable not to fight distractions as if discipline and compliance were ends in themselves. Instead, “go with the flow.” Treat distractions as ventures into exploration and useful innovation triggered by some stimulus in the quest for a solution. It is best to let daydreams play out. After all, a distraction may be the product of a one-time firing of a thread of synapses. A distraction may actually be an opportunity to break out from straight-line thinking to a fleeting thought essential to an elusive breakthrough. In short, a distraction may be consequential ... if not essential.

A Notable Acquisition Failure

Acquisition sustainability problems are amply illustrated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Air Traffic Control Modernization System experience, described by one participant as the “greatest failure in the history of organized work.” Quantitatively, $1.5 billion out of the $2.6 billion spent was useless. The scope of the undertaking involved 173 Terminal Radar Approach Centers (TRACONs), 20 En Route Centers, and 460 federally managed control towers.

Beginning with a lack of congressional oversight, this multi-billion, multi-decade episode includes numerous examples of acquisition failure.

The FAA started this Big Bang project that was an order of magnitude too large and complex, as it ignored the Clint Eastwood character’s warning in the film “Magnum Force” that a man’s got to know his limitations. Instead, the FAA threw itself at the mercy of IBM and its Federal Systems Division’s impeccable reputation. But it then failed in its primary responsibility to manage and control the Air Traffic Controllers.

The very start of the contract was marred by a protest from the unsuccessful second-place bidder, and that took a year to settle. Instead of documenting the requirements during the first year as planned, the FAA and IBM spent the time fending off a legal challenge from Hughes Aircraft. After the first year, the planned requirements were not completed, and the Air Traffic Controllers stood emboldened and ready to assert themselves with the FAA following their strike and thousands of layoffs under President Reagan. The result was chaos brought on by an unhappy user community that usurped intellectual control of the project requirements with no regard for cost and schedule outcomes.

The unprecedented size of the program, the uncontrolled stream of change orders from a user community, and a continuous stream of Program Trouble Reports pushed essential technical issues to the back burner. Left unattended, these open-source, commercial off the shelf/government off the shelf, Unix-based distributed computing, and Ada programming language issues added to instability.

Still worse, in the midst of all this, IBM sold its Federal Systems Division to another defense contractor, Loral, which promised Congress that it would stay on top of the project but then turned around in short order and sold it to yet another defense contractor, Lockheed Martin. All this jockeying was in service of Defense Secretary Les Aspin’s defense consolidation initiative.

What is the essence of defense acquisition sustainability? At its core, defense acquisition sustainability depends on the government and industry sticking to their assigned lanes. The government should focus on what needs to be done. Industry should remain focused on how to do it.

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