The Way Forward

SEPT 1, 2022 | Written by: Dr. William LaPlante, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (A&S)

In this first of a series of columns, Dr. LaPlante discusses guiding principles for adopting a learning mentality, managing program risk, driving innovation, and making an impact.

Since I took on the role of Under Secretary in late April, A&S has remained at the forefront of a historic mission—supporting Ukraine in its fight against unprovoked Russian aggression. Every day, Ukraine is at the top of our list, and how we support this effort extends into everything we do.

We face tremendous challenges in determining which capabilities we’re going to draw down from U.S. inventories, what we can procure from industry directly, and how we can move rapidly on replenishment. While the fight evolves seemingly every couple of weeks, our defense acquisition workforce continues to answer the call. I applaud your professionalism and dedication to the mission. And with this administration’s leadership in concert with allies and partners, we will continue doing whatever is required to help Ukraine fight and win.

For nearly a decade, defense acquisition has emphasized developing new, more expedited authorities. The multi-domain, pacing threat posed by China now requires that we use those authorities to produce capability relevant to the high-end fight—both at scale and with the appropriate doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, and facilities.

Advancing Our Learning The organizations and individuals that learn are the ones that will win. There are two parts to this mentality. The first follows the adage, “Don’t repeat your mistakes.” Put simply, you are not learning if you repeat your mistakes. Mistakes are inevitable, but if we learn to stop making the same ones, we begin to see improved outcomes. So, if you make mistakes, make new ones.

The other piece is that there are often many lessons, but few lessons are learned. It’s important to always look at situations as learning opportunities. Whether something goes well, not well, or some combination of both, make sure to learn from the scenario. As an experienced senior leader in both government and industry, this is how I assess people: Do I see them learning? Not only do I consider how competent people are at their jobs but, over time, I look at the extent to which they are actually learning.

I share this because we are taking this approach across A&S in everything from our Competitive Advantage Pathfinders, which aims to demonstrate challenges and solutions to barriers in capability fielding, to our efforts in modernizing the certification framework under the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act and making self-directed, lifelong learning fundamental to our products, processes, habits, and culture.

This includes the current security assistance mission. Since the start of the conflict in Ukraine on Feb. 24, we have observed both sides learning new tactics and limitations as the fight evolves. We know that what we field must be trainable, usable, and reparable; but we also must anticipate that adversaries will ultimately learn and adapt.

In our business, nothing is static, and we must not rely too much on prediction. From Afghanistan to Ukraine, for the fourth time in the last two decades, we have experienced an unpredicted capability demand—in this case, for munitions. Instead of relying on exquisite predictions about which munition or system will be needed or work, we must learn how to build adaptability and flexibility into our thinking and our acquisition enterprise.

Building Adaptability History tells us, and we are learning again in Ukraine, that every fight is different. If you compare the systems we are fielding in Ukraine (such as communications equipment, unmanned systems, and artillery) to those required for a high-end fight (fifth-generation aircraft, space assets, electronic warfare), they may appear very different. But, in reality, both are provided by many of the same key suppliers. We all enjoy the just-in-time economy of our daily lives, but it only takes a global pandemic or security crisis to see the importance of building resilience and adaptability within our programs and across the industrial base.

Adapting is all about the ability to sense—ideally, predict—a change in the environment. Whether it is the threat, the technology, or anything else, adaptability involves adjusting to that change in order to achieve a desired outcome. That adaptability is measured by the quickness or agility in sensing, adjusting, and implementing change needed to reach that outcome.

What is required? First, we need to be sensitive to those shifts and have predictive capabilities. Much of that can be driven by analytics. But it also involves a more complete awareness of the real world, observing developments through multiple lenses and accepting that conditions in reality are usually not ideal. One example involves degraded operations: How will systems be used in the presence of a cyber-adversary, evolving energy and weather conditions, or an emerging biological threat? We must recognize our shifting strategic environment and adapt accordingly.

It’s also important to consider the role risk plays in advancing learning and building adaptability. If you don’t think your program has risk, you don’t know your program. Every program has risk—and that is not a bad thing.

The difference is in managing risk versus watching risk or being risk averse. The program manager’s job, as well as that of everyone supporting the program manager, is to understand the risks and mitigate them. If you’re managing this well, your highest risk item today may not be your highest risk item six months from now. How do you prepare for unexpected events? How will you deal with the unknown? It all gets back to learning and adaptability: You’re learning to identify risk and adapting to drive it down until you find your next highest risk.

Securing Wins Tying these facets together is the foundation for innovation and improving acquisition outcomes. While there are numerous books and TED Talks—even a Weird Al parody worth watching—on what “innovation” means, our true ability to innovate is measured by our wins. Success is delivering an idea or technology to the Warfighter at scale that will change the battlefield for the high-end fight—that’s an innovation.

You can put on demonstrations of the most cutting-edge technology, give lots of presentations, and win awards. But if it sits on the shelf and doesn’t impact the fight, we’re not innovating. Not everything will get from Science and Technology into production, nor should it. But some of it should go into production and do so within a reasonable amount of time.

Dr. LaPlante, as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, is responsible to the Secretary of Defense for all matters pertaining to acquisition; contract administration; logistics and materiel readiness; installations and environment; operational energy; nuclear, chemical, and biological defense; the acquisition workforce; and the defense industrial base.

Dr. LaPlante has spent more than 36 years in the national security and non-profit technology communities. In addition to serving as the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition from 2014 to 2017, he was a member of the Defense Science Board and played a key role in defense acquisition reform as part of the Section 809 Panel.

Dr. La Plante holds a doctorate in mechanical engineering from the Catholic University of America, a master’s degree in applied physics from Johns Hopkins University, and a bachelor’s degree in engineering physics from the University of Illinois.

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