DoD readying new approach to IT acquisition

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Defense Department is scheduled to deliver its plan to Congress later this month to change how it develops technology systems to mirror the same approach it has used for decades with the B-52 bomber.

DoD first hired Boeing to develop the B-52 in 1952, and over the last 58 years it has updated every part of the plane one piece at a time.

“We want to maintain the base system and rapidly develop applications over time,” says Tim Harp, DoD’s deputy assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and information technology acquisition in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration in an interview with Federal News Radio earlier this year.

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“Our other problem is we can’t ever replace a system because it is a part of a spider web of systems so we can’t turn off because it may be connected to some other critical capability we weren’t aware of. We have to maintain they systems over time so by building off the base that we have, we can inject new capabilities without disrupting the existing ones.”

The idea to change technology acquisition to a more agile or modular approach isn’t new. The Defense Science Board has suggested the Pentagon move in that direction for years. Finally, Congress in the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization act mandated the plan 270 days after the bill became law. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law last October.

In the law, Congress required DoD to develop a policy for IT acquisition to address:

  • Early and continual involvement of the user;
  • Multiple, rapidly executed increments or releases of capability;
  • Early, successive prototyping to support an evolutionary approach;
  • A modular, open-systems approach.

The end result is to move away from the traditional way DoD develops technology, which modeled after the major weapons system approach that can take up to 91 months to implement a final system and to a rapid acquisition process.

“We want to take advantage of that speed of technology evolution,” Harp says. “It has evolved to the point where we recognize IT is inherently different than weapons systems, and the risk is different too.”

In many ways, DoD’s guidance is a forerunner to the Office of Management and Budget’s recent guidance on how to improve the development of financial management systems.

Defense deputy secretary William Lynn further outlined DoD’s plan in a speech in May to the U.S. Strategic Command. He says it can take up to 81 months from conception to funding to final product and that is way too long.

Lynn pointed to Apple’s 24 month development of the iPhone as an example that DoD must follow.

“We need to match the acquisition process to the technology development cycle. In IT, this means 12 to 36 months cycles, not 7 or 8 years,” Lynn said.

Second, we must acknowledge that incremental development, testing, and whenever possible, fielding of new capabilities provides better outcomes in IT than trying to deploy large complex systems in one “big bang.” Third, to achieve speedy, incremental improvements, we need to carefully examine how to establish the requirements that govern acquisition. Systems must always be tailored to serve the needs of end users, but departing from standard architectures in IT imposes great costs. To achieve speed, we must be willing to sacrifice or defer some customization. Making use of established standards, and open modular platforms, is of paramount importance.

He adds that DoD also must recognize that there are a wide variety of needs across the department and each of these systems demand different levels of oversight and enterprise integration.

“We are working to outline a series of acquisition paths that apply high levels of institutional due diligence where it is needed and strip away excess requirements where it is not,” he said. “The problem we are trying to solve is not an easy one. The Defense Department has unique IT needs that limit our ability to replicate the dynamism of private industry.”

Harp says there will be several benefits for DoD, including reduced costs, better quality and more timely systems development.

“The new process will open up doors to non-traditional suppliers, including small businesses whose work is now wrapped up with large business projects,” he says. “The process will provide us with a whole different set of criteria for success. We will not just change the oversight, but increase oversight and make whole process more open and have a better dialogue more frequently.”

DoD is looking at testing this new process in 2010, but Harp was unsure about when or on what kinds of projects.

“We don’t want to adopt these processes for projects nearing the end of the acquisition phase or anything that is immature,” he says. “We are looking for good candidates to use as the initial pilots.”

Diann McCoy, a former component acquisition executive at the Defense Information Systems Agency and now the practice management executive with Acquisition Solutions, says DoD’s approach is to build against a pre-determined platform.

“The goal is to build in smaller increments or smaller sets of capabilities that can be evolved over time,” she says. “They will grow to a fairly larger set of requirements and the whole idea is to start small and not try to over state or build too aggressively at the beginning.”

McCoy says the idea of building to a platform has developed over the past five years as changes came to technology.

“With the rapid influx of capabilities on Internet, it led people to look at how to build IT systems and capabilities differently,” she says. “All of a sudden, you had a stable operational system environment and that has become one of the key cornerstones as people go out to develop IT systems.”

Congress also is focusing on IT acquisition in the 2011 DoD authorization bill. The Senate’s version includes a provision to require DoD to implement a new process to rapidly field capabilities to meet urgent operational needs.

The provision also calls for the Pentagon to implement an expedited review process to determine whether the new technologies proposed as urgent appropriate to go through the rapid development process.

“As a general rule, the rapid acquisition process would be available only for capabilities that can be fielded within a period of 2 to 24 months, do not require a substantial development effort, are based on technologies that are proven and available, and can be acquired under fixed price contracts,” the Senate report states.

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