The Art of Acquisition

September 23, 2022

The wisdom of Sun Tzu and his legendary Art of War treatise from the 5th century BC have been applied to a range of fields outside of the military, including business, law, and even sports. On September 23, 2022, the Acquisition Innovation Research Center (AIRC) convened a workshop with 20 thought leaders with expertise across the Defense Acquisition system. This workshop drew on these other applications of the Art of War to develop relevant insights for practitioners of Defense Acquisition in an era of Great Power Competition.  

The Tension

The acquisition of complex systems can be characterized as a confluence of tension points to overcome a range of opposing forces. Forces in the practice of Defense Acquisition can take a number of forms, and consist of both intentional and unintentional opposition.

Effectively conducting acquisition comprises several dimensions, including:  

  • Successfully navigating established policies and procedures;  
  • Understanding, selecting, and employing the most effective approach(es) for a specific program; and 
  • Identifying and implementing improvements to the system. 

Sun Tzu’s Principles

Sun Tzu specifically addressed military competition with a known adversary, at a time when military engagement was significantly different than today. However, his principles have been applied to modern military and geostrategic competition, as well as several other fields, including business, law, and sports. These alternative applications include competition with a clear, physical opponent, as well as more subtle insights such as effective negotiation strategies and tactics. 

As described above, the “tension” of Defense Acquisition is multifaceted and contains a range of nuances. How would Sun Tzu approach this? Table 1 below identifies five key principles which may unlock practical insights into how we can more effectively prevail in the Art of Acquisition. This table sets the stage for our workshop to address the following questions. 

Workshop Questions

  • Who are the primary forces in the acquisition ecosystem?  Why and how do they inhibit efforts to achieve Defense acquisition objectives? 
  • What insights can we draw from the application of Sun Tzu’s wisdom in other disciplines? 
  • How does each of the five principles below apply to Defense acquisition? What insights can we gain into the nature of competition in Defense acquisition based on these principles?  
  • How can these principles be operationalized to make practical improvements to Defense Acquisition?  What would we do and how would it work? 
  • Are there other principles from Sun Tzu (beyond the five below) that provide crucial insights to improve Defense Acquisition? 

Table 1. Sun Tzu’s Principles Applicable to Defense Acquisition

Sun Tzu Principles 
“Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.”
“You can be sure in succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.”
“The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. The greatest victory is that which requires no battle.”
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself, but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
“In war, the victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won.”

Workshop Leads