Poor integration blamed for many defense acquisition woes

A new study from Booz Allen Hamiton shows near-universal frustration with the defense acquisition process. Experts say integration and communication between contractors, customers and users of technology is key to fixing the process and improving U.S. defense capabilities.

When it comes to the defense acquisition process, nobody is happy.

According to a new report, released last week by Booz Allen Hamilton and the Government Business Council, dissatisfaction with the defense acquisition process is near-universal: 99 percent of the study’s 340 respondents – defense leaders at GS/GM-11 to -15 grade levels – “identify significant problems with the acquisition process.”

Respondents blamed a range of causes for defense acquisition problems, from funding to a lack of warfighter input, but experts looking at the data pointed to one central issue: a lack of integration.

“[In the defense industry], we buy all these different things and then integrate after the fact,” said Greg Wenzel, senior vice president of Booz Allen Hamilton’s strategic innovation group. “We need to be starting with integration at the forefront.”

In the midst of defense budget cuts, “agencies are asking, ‘How can we continue to deliver mission effectiveness with decreased funding?’” Wenzel said.

Those agencies could be better served, Wenzel said, by asking the question, “How do we buy integration?”

Of course, the new study isn’t the first time the industry has acknowledged integration failings.

Last year, vice admiral David Dunaway lamented: “Radios that don’t connect, data links that don’t communicate, weapons that miss targets, and radars that interfere with other systems are the byproducts of harsh physical realities and our feeble initial attempts to integrate individual systems.”

Integrating Intelligence

The Booz Allen study asked about problems with the defense acquisition process in general as well as focusing on the growing field of C4ISR.

In both cases, two primary issues topped respondents’ list of complaints: a disconnect between government and industry expectations, and high costs/limited funding.

“[The results] are not surprising at all,” said Trey Obering, senior vice president at Booz Allen and a retired Air Force lieutenant general. “Industry can be over optimistic about meeting expectations, while in government, they do not understand how industry operates, what role profits play, the role of incentives.”

In the realm of C4ISR, integration is, of course, critical.

“What makes C4ISR effective is when you’re actually integrating systems,” Wenzel said, “getting info from collectors into analysis systems.”

When integration is missing, C4ISR systems are crippled.

In some ways, technology is keeping up with the demand for integration, as in the case of the Predator drone platform.

“Predator was developed as a pure ISR resource,” Obering said, “and what happened was during Operation Northern and Southern Watch, the drones would be seeing violations of the no-fly zone and relaying that info, but by the time (American) fighters could get there the Iraqi jets would be gone.”

Solving the time-delay issue, Obering said, necessitated outfitting the drones with weapons of their own.

Putting missiles on a drone – or “transcending organizational and acquisitional boundaries by combining ISR and combat,” as Wenzel put it – doesn’t solve the underlying issues, of course, as whole-system integration is key to ensuring the intelligence gathered by the drones can be used effectively.

“We need to see if we’re able to get away from large, shrink-wrapped systems and get to an agile, modular enterprise,” Wenzel said.

Pivoting to the Pacific

As the U.S. military turns its attention further east, the importance of integration will grow.

“In Iraq and Afghanistan, we were dealing with tactical command and control scenarios, but as we pivot to the Pacific, we’re likely to be dealing with more strategic command and control scenarios,” Obering said.

The situation will combine elements of two recent U.S. military eras, Obering said: the strategic standoffs and massive distances of the Cold War, combined with the fast-paced, ever-evolving combat situations of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“What is the main challenge in the Pacific?” Obering asked. “Distance.”

The vast ocean distance, combined with the “near-peer threat” posed by East Asian militaries, will make integrated intelligence ever more essential.

The “very different challenges” of the Pacific theater will require “even tighter integration of a broader variety of assets,” Obering said.

Wenzel, on the other hand, said that from an ISR perspective, the pivot to the Pacific will bring “slightly different possible threats,” but in some senses the change will be as simple as calibrating sensors for a different color palette.

“It’s kind of like a shift from brown or tan [in Iraq and Afghanistan] to green,” Wenzel said.

However, he emphasized the fact that “the essential integration issue will remain.”

Moving forward

Looking at the Booz Allen study results – in which the majority of respondents cited “a wide array of stakeholders to manage” and the government lacking key assets as major concerns, along with funding and the government-industry disconnect – Wenzel reinforced the necessity of cohesion and integration.

“Defense agencies need to start thinking like an enterprise,” Wenzel said, seeking modular, reusable solutions that will enable tools to be deployed across multiple platforms.

Part of that shift is happening already, Wenzel said, as the Defense Department starts to treat military systems as “federally owned assets,” rather than strictly belonging to a single service or agency.

Obering pointed to his time at the Missile Defense Agency as a possible model for defense acquisition improvement.

“We set up three labs and had users and warfighters sitting there side-by-side with developers,” Obering recalled.

The “focused interaction between users and developers” that resulted allowed the MDA to acquire better-integrated systems.

“[The industry would benefit from] a continual rollout of interaction between users, the government and contractors,” Obering said.

Such interaction would enable system developers to better understand the needs of their customers, and customers to realize the tradeoffs associated with their different requests.

Improving the defense acquisition process requires integration of systems, as well as integrating the activities of those developing the systems.

Budget cuts can be overcome, Obering said, but “if you have a fundamental communications disconnect between government and industry, that’s much harder to fix.”

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