Pentagon falling behind on prototyping, watchdog finds

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The Defense Department’s use of innovative prototyping in weapons systems acquisition is lacking, according to a new Government Accountability Report.

The GAO recommends further strategic development in the areas of prioritizing, funding and investment in the Pentagon’s prototyping program.

The report stems from the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act granting the GAO permission to review spending strategy within department’s prototyping program. The review assessed the DOD’s use of pre-systems development prototyping on 22 Major Defense Acquisition Programs and the DOD’s focus on innovation in seven non-MDAP prototyping activities.

The GAO found an absence of departmentwide prioritization and communication strategies overseeing the prototyping program and recommended the implementation of an organizational strategy to alleviate interdepartment investment competition and inefficiency. The DOD also lacks an organizational model overseeing funding for prototyping and innovation programs, for which the GAO offered a “strategic bucket” solution designed to separate and categorize funding for different initiatives.

The Pentagon’s legal obligation to contract multiple prototypes prior to beginning system development under the Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act ended in 2016 with the passage of that year’s NDAA, raising concerns about the future of its prototyping and innovation programs. While the DOD still encourages competitive prototyping and requires prototypes on some levels, the repeal of the provision could stall development and inflate costs for weapons systems acquisition.

Additionally, the GAO suggested a review of prototyping funding requests within the Office of Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation to maintain an investment strategy consistent with the goals of the DOD.

The GAO concluded on prototyping that “when used effectively, it can help reduce risks and improve the likelihood that a weapon system acquisition program will be completed on time and on budget. Furthermore, it helps keep DOD’s technology pipeline stocked with new and innovative technologies that might provide the next great leap ahead in military capabilities and may even deter adversaries by demonstrating advanced capabilities.”

The current path the DOD is on, however, will struggle to maximize the potential of such programs, the report found.

“Without a more strategic, inclusive, and deliberate approach overall, its new prototyping and experimentation initiatives might not generate the levels and types of innovation the department is seeking,” it stated.

With the repeal of the competitive prototyping provision in the 2016 NDAA, the DOD should take cues from the private sector on how to protect and grow its innovation and prototyping initiatives, the GAO argues, by “developing an innovation strategy, aligning investments with innovation goals, and protecting funding for riskier projects.”

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