View from the Top

Reform defense acquisition to reflect the challenges of the cyber age

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Currently, the defense procurement process is hallmarked by delays and under-inclusiveness. The Department of Defense and Congress must work together to accelerate the process and allow additional players in the game, so we can acquire advanced technology to effectively fight the digital war that is now upon us.

By James Norton

Securing our nation from cyber threats requires identifying and addressing the root causes of our vulnerabilities. One such cause is the defense procurement process, which is hallmarked by delays and under-inclusiveness. The Department of Defense and Congress must work together to accelerate the process and allow additional players in the game, so we can acquire advanced technology to effectively fight the digital war that is now upon us.

Defense procurements are intended to provide the necessary tools for the military to execute its mission of defending freedom in the real and virtual worlds. But before these tools can be placed in the hands of the end user, the defense department must lead a multiyear procurement process.  The process typically involves three key elements: requirements development, industry engagement in a series of sterile forums, and an appropriation by Congress allowing a request for proposal (RFP) to go forward.

While it historically led to modest success for standard vehicles or floating platforms, this process is unfit for the digital age. This is because the morphing of cyber attacks and the evolution of the technology used to prevent them far outpace the procurement process’ creep. As the purchase cycle plods on, the product being acquired becomes obsolete, and modifications must be inserted into the product’s requirement. Modifying the product can delay the process by months and, sometimes, even years.

Moreover, sequestration led to increased scrutiny of RFPs for jumbo procurements. If the RFP does not pass muster, a midstream requirement change will be issued, setting a program back. While the beefed-up review and approval process is undoubtedly important, it is also time consuming and unpredictable.

To be a legitimate bidder in the procurement process, a company must commit millions to the research and development necessary to engineer a solution. The result is only a limited number of players have the overhead to compete.

And winning a bid requires Washington insider insight and know how. Would-be contractors must understand the intricate labyrinth that is DoD, knowing who and when to call, what websites and forms to use, etc. Moreover, they must be equipped to spend years lobbying the government to shape its requirements to match technology in the company’s portfolio. These barriers to entry make the procurement process unwelcome and undesirable to newcomers. 

This is exceedingly problematic. Because, in the digital age, the companies that can offer the most advanced solution cheaply and quickly are frequently not the big-five defense contractors; instead, they are small and innovative firms in Silicon Valley—often startups.

One silver lining is the recently announced Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative. With Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall at the helm, DoD plans to realign Internal Research and Development (IRAD) spending.  The proposed realignment calls for DoD to take on a gatekeeper role over IRAD spending, with an eye towards increasing and improving engagement between the Department and defense contractors regarding the DoD’s upcoming needs.

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