House Task Force Proposals for Reforming Defense Technology Acquisition

Published: October 07, 2020

Federal Market AnalysisAcquisition ReformDEFENSEInformation TechnologyPolicy and LegislationProcurement

The House Future of Defense Task Force published a new report.

Key Takeaways

  • The House task force expects defense budgets to contract in the near term due to pressure from rising federal debt and deficits.
  • House representatives want the DOD to make greater use of artificial intelligence to solve acquisition challenges.
  • Task force members want to make it easier for non-traditional companies to do business with the DOD.

Toward the end of last September, the bi-partisan House Future of Defense Task Force published a report intended to ensure the Department of Defense’s “budgetary and policy priorities—as mandated by Congress—are focused on the needs of the future and not on the political and military-industrial loyalties of the past.” Reforming defense acquisition policies play a central role in the task force’s recommendations, as current practices prevent the DOD from acquiring the commercial capabilities it needs on a rapid and sustainable basis. This finding comes as no surprise as the challenges related to defense technology acquisition are well-known. They are, after all, the reason that Congress authorized the DOD to leverage Other Transaction Authority for technology acquisition several years ago. Given that a congressional task force produced the report it is worth noting some of the observations and recommendations related to technology acquisitions since some of these may appear in future legislation.

First off, the task force believes that out of control federal debt is likely to cause a near-term contraction in approved defense budgets, despite growing national security concerns. The Pentagon, therefore “will further need to refine its acquisition process and improve its ability to incorporate innovative emerging technologies and capabilities at the scale required to succeed in an era of great power competition.” To meet emerging requirements, defense acquisitions must become “more agile, creative, and less risk-averse.” The challenge to changing this situation, however, lies in the Pentagon’s acquisition process, which “is lengthy and designed to minimize risk and ensure competition and fairness.” Too often this leads the DOD “to default to legacy platforms rather than [adopting] the emerging technology-based systems necessary to operate in future conflicts.”

The task force therefore recommended the following changes be instituted in order to reform defense acquisitions for emerging technologies, particularly those types of capabilities most likely to make a game-changing difference to U.S. national security.

  1. Require every Major Defense Acquisition Program to evaluate at least one artificial intelligence or autonomous alternative prior to funding.
  2. Require all new Major Defense Acquisition Programs to be AI-ready and nest with existing and planned joint all-domain command and control networks.
  3. Direct the DOD to evaluate readiness to reduce risk for Major Defense Acquisition Programs, lower procurement costs, and accelerate the fielding of critical capabilities.
  4. Review defense acquisition regulations to make them less onerous, particularly for non-traditional entities seeking to partner with the DOD.
  5. Train and incentivize the acquisition workforce to utilize existing flexible authorities to quickly push innovative technology to warfighters in the field.
  6. Incentivize calculated risk by providing funding for emerging technologies through programs of record at scale; allow a less-than-perfect success rate.
  7. Significantly increase opportunities for operators in the field, the acquisition force, program managers, and industry to partner and work together to more quickly develop requirements and identify solutions.
  8. Structure the acquisition process, particularly for programs heavily dependent on software and technology, to be continuous and more closely aligned with the iterative process used to develop software and emerging technologies.
  9. Employ the Air Force “Kessel Run” model, which works directly with operational units for rapid development and field testing.

One curious thing about the recommendations is that they do not seem to take into account efforts already underway at the DOD, including the use of Federally-Funded R&D Centers to devise ways of increasing acquisition efficiency by cutting antiquated rules. DOD is also already discussing ways to leverage AI for acquisitions. Similarly, the Kessel Run software development model is being examined for adoption across the DOD. In connection with this, the task force does not seem to have considered Under Secretary Ellen Lord’s request to make funding for software development a separate budget line, which would give DOD more control over its spending. It is too early to tell if the task force’s recommendations will be adopted, but if some are they will hopefully have a beneficial impact on defense technology acquisitions.