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Changes ahead for Air Force acquisition

by Derek Kaufman
88th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

9/22/2009 - WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio (AFNS) -- More than 275 Air Force and defense industry leaders met here Sept. 3 to discuss military technology acquisition challenges and opportunities facing the nation.

The Air Force Association Technology Symposium was timed to immediately follow the semi-annual Air Force Materiel Command Senior Leaders Conference held Sept. 1 and 2.

Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, the AFMC commander, called the symposium's timing, mix of senior leader presentations and focused breakout sessions "a good nexus of events" to help enhance the government-industry partnership and the team's ability to more quickly develop and field new capabilities.

He used the analogy of nurturing a garden, noting that when resources compete or are limited, not every seed planted in support of a new technology or system will bear fruit right away. Acquisition, research and development and sustainment experts -- from both government and industry -- need to be patient, he added.

"I think we all share the same frustration: that there are a lot of noble ideas that don't get all the way to the finish line," General Hoffman said. "Whether we're fighting today's fight or preparing for tomorrow's, technology will be a part of the solution. It's in our culture as a nation and certainly in our culture as an Air Force."

Commanders and executive directors from across AFMC listened to presentations on topics ranging from "going green" with environmentally friendly technologies to strategies enabling small businesses to successfully garner government contracts.

Lt. Gen. Thomas J. Owen, the Aeronautical Systems Center commander, said it's "imperative" for everyone involved in new technology development and acquisition to adopt a "systems engineering, enterprise-wide mindset." Only then will America be able to stay ahead of adversaries who can easily adapt. He emphasized the need to keep costs and schedules under control.

"We absolutely have to think systems engineering -- think the entire system -- not some point solution to an individual problem that benefits one aspect of one program, or one aspect of one company," General Owen said.

He explained that this requires an understanding of the entire environment: stakeholders; Department of Defense officials' planning, programming and budgeting and joint capabilities integration processes; and much more. Breaking down stovepipes and silver-bullet platform thinking and replacing them with common, consistent, analytical approaches are vital.

Changes within the last year to DOD Instruction 5000.02, which governs defense acquisition, build in some of this thinking by requiring more risk assessments, analysis and detailed reporting up front, before major program milestone decisions, General Owen said.

General Owen, the program executive officer for aircraft procurement and modernization, reminded everyone in attendance that all Air Force capabilities ultimately come from industry.

"This is a team sport," General Owen said, adding that industry must be an essential partner throughout the entire process and they may be asked to assume more of the risk as the Air Force moves away from 'cost plus fixed fee' and 'cost plus award fee' contracts. "Profit should be closely related to risk."

The Air Force needs better definitions of realistic requirements up front, simplified source selections, more robust systems engineering, increased efforts at technology risk reduction and competitive prototyping, General Owen said. Additional program documentation requirements for both industry and government and more scrutiny in the form of independent subject matter expert reviews are things everyone needs to get used to.

View from Washington

Amplifying on those comments, Lt. Gen. Mark D. "Shack" Shackelford, the military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, offered his Washington perspective on technology challenges and what can be done to make acquisition more predictable. He highlighted some recent process and organizational changes, and hinted more would be revealed soon.

Secretary of the Air Force Michael B. Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz have shepherded a "shift in the landscape" and engaged on a number of areas to raise the level of visibility for acquisition across the Air Force, General Shackelford said.

The acquisition improvement plan, now in execution, includes a number of initiatives, he said. No. 1 is to revitalize the workforce. The cumulative effect of many iterations of acquisition transformation over the last 10 to 15 years resulted in a 23 percent decrease in the size of the acquisition workforce, even as workload increased some 50 percent. Loss of skilled groups like cost estimators, cost analysts and contracting people has been particularly hard-felt. Deployment requirements have also been challenging for both officer and enlisted contracting professionals, with 70 percent of all contracting jobs in Southwest Asia being filled by Airmen, who rotate on six-month intervals in and out of theater with a one-to-one deployment to dwell ratio.

"We put a lot of pressure on our people and some of them are choosing to do other things," General Shackelford said.

The Air Force is aggressively working to fill vacant positions, and also garnered about 2000 new authorizations between fiscal 2010 and 2013, mostly civilian positions. In April, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates announced a multiyear plan to beef-up DOD's in-house acquisition workforce by 20,000. That number includes an allocation of more than 4,800 positions for the Air Force, including 3,400 positions to come from contractor-to-civilian conversions, General Shackelford said. The mix includes program managers, systems engineers, contracting specialists, cost estimators and other disciplines, including a small number of attorneys.

He said the effort encourages development of a balanced workforce with both experienced professionals and highly-educated young people with no government experience who bring their fresh ideas. Training and education are important components of the workforce development plan with focus on more slots and money for Defense Acquisition University and Air Force Institute of Technology course attendance.

Other efforts to instill discipline to prevent requirements creep and stay within the funded budget target must balance "the never-ending demand for the latest, coolest thing," General Shackelford said.

"Funding is not ours to control," General Shackelford acknowledged, adding that seeking better fidelity in cost estimations to ensure the proper level of funding in the Acquisition Decision Memorandum document that steers every program is vital. "There's a balance between overfunding a program and constraining the use of funds," he said, adding he foresees "some slash and burn" ahead as the Air Force re-prioritizes to reflect budget realities. He noted "lots of budget churn" and a negative slope for research, development, test & evaluation funding is likely, especially, when Air Force funding for the F-35 Lightning program is removed from the equation.

On the topic of source selections, General Shackelford underscored the value of additional internal and external reviews that are now required.

"The goal here is not to avoid a protest," he said. The goal is to have our act together, so if we do get a protest, (government's) odds of winning that protest are much greater."

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