DEC 13, 2022

Innovating Improvements to Defense Acquisition

Dr. Jianmin Qu, Provost of the Stevens Institute of Technology

On November 15, 2022, the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) Acquisition Innovation Research Center (AIRC) united a national network of practitioners and researchers across academia, government, and industry to discuss issues and opportunities for improving acquisition outcomes. 

Dr. Jianmin Qu, Provost of the Stevens Institute of Technology, reflected academia’s strong interest in helping to improve government performance and outcomes. “AIRC’s mission is well aligned with ours. For that reason, we have been—and will continue to provide—full support for the operation of AIRC at Stevens.”  

The Honorable Dr. Paul Kaminski—Chairman of the Advisory Board for the DoD’s University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) that hosts AIRC—encouraged attendees to “tie together” the solutions to the economic and national security challenges we face as a nation through innovation, without fear of making mistakes and while keeping a focus on sustainment.  

Providing a historical perspective on the acquisition reforms that took place after the Cold War, Kaminski also reminded the audience of the return on investment that came about by integrating commercial practices in the DoD.   

Dr. Dennis McBride, AIRC’s Director within the DoD, noted that AIRC fits within the strategic efforts of the DoD, providing “organized innovation.” AIRC’s broader outreach to multiple disciplines such as law, behavioral sciences, and business is providing new thinking and an effective model for how to organize towards innovation, McBride said.  

Mr. Mark Krzysko, a principal sponsor of AIRC, observed that over its initial two years, AIRC has become a useful community of practice for identifying practical ideas for improving defense acquisition. To meet the challenges laid out by Dr. Kaminski, the DoD and academia—informed by and ultimately sustained by industry—will need to continue to work together, Krzysko said.  

A Systems View of Acquisition

Setting the context for the day of discussion and presentations, the opening panel of senior technology leaders from major defense prime contractors highlighted three critical areas for addressing the tension between impedance and opportunity: innovation (in technology and acquisition, integration and interoperability), culture, and mindset.  

Themes that emerged included the need to have a “whole systems” view to start making the necessary connections between missions, governance, and communications.  

The DoD must continue to shift from a program- and platform-centric perspective to a mission and data-centric perspective, using data to drive integration, interoperability, and digital transformation. This includes learning and training others to use new tools in both acquisition and operations. 

Acquisition must also harness the economic engine of commercial development. This entails formulating incentives for the defense industry to innovate “ahead of” the problem and threats.  

Successful prior practices and frameworks were also touched on, such as the “Internet of Things for warfighting,” having command and control anytime and anywhere, and having small industry teams in the field to co-pilot the development of new and modified systems.  

This needs to entail supporting a shift in mindset and training for the warfighter from rote “muscle memory” to supported decision making in a complex risk environment and having visibility across the military services to meet the need for joint capabilities and operations.  

Legislation to Support Innovating 

The afternoon began with an overview by a panel of professional staff members from Congress involved in developing the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  

Themes included the tension between an administrative, prescriptive view of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) to minimize risk versus a tailoring, flexible view of the FAR to manage risk. Congress wants the latter, so it has explicitly given government officials the ability to pursue anything not specifically prohibited by the FAR (rather than being constrained to only do what the FAR says can be done).  

The staffers also emphasized the importance of objective, bipartisan research-based insights from academia to inform defense authorizations. Open and timely communication continues to be critically useful for informing legislation.  

Innovation Insights from the Commercial Sector

The final panel provided lessons and insights from commercially successful companies seeking to help the DoD.  

Of note, volume for commercial companies is much higher than for the DoD (e.g., over 30,000 units), so the DoD may often want to focus on using commercial components rather than trying to get a commercial company to develop a full system for the DoD. Also, some sectors are driven by commercial capital that want returns in months (not years), so timelines on returns may affect the attractiveness of DoD work. 

The commercial sector still has to deal with test and evaluation (T&E). For example, despite appearances, testing and developing autonomous vehicles was not quick. Also, to leverage AI, companies need training data of very high quality and quantity; this takes explicit effort and investment. Thus, while the commercial sector can move quickly, some fundamentals must still be addressed. 

The DoD needs business innovation—not just technology innovation. Acquisition reforms should look at unlocking and improving acquisition functions. For example, digital transformation is digitizing and improving processes and functions—not just digitizing paper documents.  

Even in the commercial sector, it is hard to get any large organization to innovate—including commercial companies that focus on execution. Thus, it is important to reward prudent risk taking to explore changes. 

Finally, in competition with potential adversaries, the panel suggested focusing on the core strengths of the United States (e.g., laws, free society, creativeness, and resilience). The DoD won’t win on scale against countries that excel on scale and nimble access to technology, especially if their civilian and military sectors are fused and more directive. 

Innovative Ideas Emerging from Applied AIRC Research 

Finally, the day provided multiple tracks of research results to address challenges across the defense acquisition system. Inputs to the acquisition system were addressed by research in options for streamlining the requirements approval processes and a framework for thinking through ideas for responsive appropriations. 

Researchers also described a prototype secure data science enclave to facilitate data access and multi-organizational collaboration by universities and other extramural entities. Also on the data front, AIRC has prototyped semester-long data science competitions to engage students and faculty on real DoD problems and data. 

Other exploratory research involved developing cognitive assistants for training cost estimators as well as testing what types of gamified curricula improve training speed and retention.  

Also, multiple universities collaborated on adapting tools from model-based systems engineering to improve insights and decisions on portfolios of DoD investments, including system interdependencies, optimization by cost, and performance from alternative architectures. 

Taken together, the panels, remarks, and multiple research presentations given shaped a holistic view of the challenges to overcome and opportunities for organized innovation across the DoD acquisition ecosystem, the defense industrial base, and the growing AIRC network of academic expertise.  

Other research described factors and decision-making considerations for when and how to apply additive manufacturing to sustainment, logistics, and transportation. 

Additional research explored how the commercial sector has applied agile development to hardware and integrated hardware/software systems to help inform DoD expansion of agile beyond software. 

Earlier AIRC research in T&E has led to a strategic thrust for the DoD to tackle hard problems, such as T&E for learning, adaptive, autonomous, risky, and complex systems. 

Finally, AIRC researchers provided an overview of the issues and equities involved in Congress’ consideration of statutory debarments for labor violations. 

The research presentations given are available on the AIRC website 

Follow AIRC on LinkedIn for updates and other news on acquisition innovation.