DoD Leaders’ Modernization Plans Will Require Rethinking How It Partners With Industry

October 18, 2019
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The Department of Defense (DoD) is on a mission to transform the way it acquires advanced military capabilities. Each of the Military Services has stood up a special organization expressly for the purpose of shortening the cycle time associated with developing and procuring new weapons systems and promoting innovation. The U.S. Army has been boldest, creating a new four-star command, Army Futures Command (AFC), for the express purpose of speeding up all aspects of modernization. The aerospace and defense industry has a long history of operating special organizations devoted to pursuing innovative solutions to challenging technical and operational problems. Pratt & Whitney, one of the Nation’s premier developers of commercial and military aircraft engines, has responded to DoD’s imperative for rapid modernization by standing up its own innovation cell in Florida called GatorWorks. This new organization is already demonstrating the innovative thinking for which its military customers, particularly the Army and Air Force, are looking.

DoD recognizes that the traditional acquisition process takes too long. Modernization programs typically take fifteen to twenty years to bear fruit. The effort to define requirements for a new platform or piece of hardware alone can take as much as five years. Often, modernization programs have been burdened by the stultifying weight of too many requirements that overly circumscribe how a system or piece of hardware must be developed and built. The result can be an overly complex and costly solution. In addition, the acquisition system is overly bureaucratized and risk-averse. This hampers the ability of program managers and industry to take risks in order to develop innovative solutions.

The Pentagon and the Military Services want to modernize faster and cheaper. This means reforming all parts of the acquisition process, from requirements definition and engineering development to contracting, testing and life cycle management. The former Secretary of the Army, now Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, said that one of his goals was to reduce the time for developing weapons systems’ requirements from three years to as little as a year. Will Roper, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, has gone even further, arguing for the elimination of the current acquisition system when it comes to major procurements: “We’ve got to kill the major defense acquisition program as it is today and replace it with something that looks more like the Century Series development of the early Air Force.” Secretary Roper believes that new design processes such as digital engineering, agile software and open architectures will allow industry to develop and field a new airplane every five years.

DoD and the military have created specialized organizations to change the way acquisition is done and promote the faster development of new capabilities. The Pentagon stood up the Strategic Capabilities Office, formerly headed by Secretary Roper. Each of the Services has a similar office. The Army has gone further than the others by standing up AFC and a series of Cross Functional Teams to oversee priority modernization efforts such as the Next Generation Combat Vehicle, Long Range Precision Strike and Future Vertical Lift.

Creating an acquisition system that delivers innovative products rapidly also means a different relationship between government and industry. In essence, government needs to be a better customer, one that encourages industry to take risks, limits the number of requirements it levies on developmental programs, doesn’t micromanage, and is willing to tolerate failure.

Congress in Section 804 of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act gave DoD new authorities to change the way it works with industry by bypassing many existing acquisition processes, particularly the Joint Capabilities Integration Development System and Defense Acquisition Regulations 5000.1 for so-called mid-tier programs. Section 804 allows for both rapid prototyping and expedient fielding so long as the system to be deployed can enter production in six months and full fielding can be accomplished in no more than five years.

The aerospace and defense industry has a long history of developing and fielding radically new capabilities rapidly. Take for example, Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works, which became famous for rapidly designing and developing transformative military aircraft including the U-2, SR-71, F-22 and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Boeing has a similar advanced technology and prototyping division called Phantom Works which was instrumental in developing the MQ-25 unmanned aerial vehicle the Navy wants to deploy as a tanker on aircraft carriers.

Pratt & Whitney, one of the Nation’s most innovative engine design companies, has taken this concept one step further with its GatorWorks advanced development and prototyping division. Created in 2018, the idea behind this new organization is to develop new products faster by unburdening the research and development process from cumbersome, slow and largely irrelevant requirements and behaviors. The goal, according to Matthew Bromberg, the president of Pratt’s military engines division, is “to cut the cost and lead time of our product and technology development in half.”

It is as important for the engineers and technicians at GatorWorks to think differently as it is for them to move fast. According to Dave Stagney, GatorWorks’ boss: “This is not traditional R&D. If we go into these programs thinking only about propulsion, we all lose. . . I challenged the team to think about the problem differently, because people can try out ideas in a way that is freeing them up and not so risk averse.”

GatorWorks is already proving to be the right model for rapid innovation in engines and associated equipment. For example, in less than a year, GatorWorks successfully developed for the Air Force the prototype for a new, more fuel efficient, low-cost 700lb-thrust engine for cruise missiles and drones. The idea is to iterate this engine’s design, demonstrating to potential customers what results can be achieved by trading off requirements. This approach allows designers to experiment with different ways of designing and building products, exploiting new capabilities such as digital engineering and 3-D manufacturing. It also permits GatorWorks to develop multiple new propulsion systems and upgrade existing ones in the time it used to take to design and field just one.

The principles that guide GatorWorks’ efforts in support of the Air Force can be applied to the propulsion needs of the other Services, as well. The U.S. Amy has an abiding interest in aircraft engines that are lighter and use less fuel but produce more thrust. GatorWorks is a cornucopia of innovative ideas, already working on two dozen projects ranging from new engines and power generation technologies to hypersonics and hybrid electrics.

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

This article appeared originally at Lexington Institute.

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