As the Pentagon starts its next fiscal year, it should be focused on ensuring its acquisition system is focused on the right issues.
When it comes to major purchases that the Defense Department will use for decades, it’s critical to ask three basic questions:
1. Does this purchase maximize the likelihood of strategic success for the United States?
2. Does this purchase meet the identified needs of warfighters who will use the capability?
3. Is this purchase the best value for the taxpayer?
The next opportunity to assess this approach for a major program will likely be the Army’s expected contract award for a new Future Long-Range Assault Aircraft (FLRAA), one component of the Future Vertical Lift effort, meant to modernize and replace virtually all existing helicopters in the DoD fleet.
The FLRAA program is poised to become a program of record later this year to replace the aging fleet of UH-60 Black Hawks over several decades and sustain the new airframes for at least 30 years. This program rapidly progressed through design, analysis and testing to deliver the Army two options that can help the Army get large numbers of troops where they need to go quickly from distances that are simply out of reach for current helicopters.
Strategic guidance to the services, culminating in the National Military Strategy, sets the overall direction for DoD. While the last three presidents have many differences, they have been very consistent in their military strategies — pushing an increased focus on the Indo-Pacific region and looking to capabilities that will allow the U.S. to defeat near-peer competitors, largely China and Russia.
From that strategic guidance, the uniformed leadership of the services and the Joint Chiefs of Staff identify the particular requirements they have for any purchase. Their job is to ensure U.S. forces have what they need to succeed and that these capabilities are realistic within the technological and fiscal timeline of the purchase. Congress passes judgment on these questions, balancing the warfighters’ needs, how to keep technological innovation flowing and the price tag.
All of the military departments are currently in the buying or late development stages of at least one major acquisition. The stability of the strategic guidance and the tremendous acquisition expertise in the senior acquisition ranks give them a great start.
Civilian acquisition leaders must ensure the requests put out to the private sector are consistent with strategy and warfighter needs; and that the acquisition process is fair and unbiased among the competitors.
While members of Congress after contract award will raise concerns about defense jobs in particular districts and states, that concern must not be a part of the award process. Similarly, while DoD may develop policies for the health of the overall defense industrial base, that is not an explicit part of the contract award.
Clarity in the acquisition process, as well as fair consideration for every competitor, is what will ensure that the contract will move forward expeditiously and without protest, which would pull back the timeline for getting the warfighters what they need on the battlefield and increase the cost of doing so.
We don’t yet know the outcome of the FLRAA decision. I would urge senior leaders, members of Congress, and their defense committees — as they evaluate the outcome of this and other major recapitalization programs — to ensure consistency with strategy and warfighter need, and then assess the critical issue of best value to the taxpayer.
The best way to avoid rising cost from the beginning is to ensure the early stages of the program’s acquisition are in line both with competitive principles and prevailing strategy.
Erin C. Conaton provides strategic advice to several consulting groups and is a senior fellow with the Association of the U.S. Army. She previously was under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, Air Force under secretary and staff director of the House Armed Services Committee.