DOD’s Kendall: Don’t blame acquisition system for technical problems

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It’s a common grumble in Washington: If the Defense Department did away with its cumbersome acquisition system, it would be able to get technology into the hands of the warfighter more quickly.

But the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall pushed back on that notion Friday, noting that some projects are pressured to move too fast at the risk of quality.

“I think there is a perception in many places that the reason it takes us so long to do programs is the acquisition system. That is not true. What takes so long is doing the work,” Kendall said during a panel discussion at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event.

Kendall talked candidly about some projects he has seen fail from what he said was a pressure to move too fast that led to ill-defined requirements.

“We ought to be a little bit careful about saying that we should do everything rapid and field prototypes,” he said. “We’ve done that to our regret a few times.”

The example he highlighted was the Army’s Future Combat Systems Program, which he called the “Biggest waste of money that I’ve seen in the Department of Defense.”

“$13 billion thrown away,” Kendall noted. “No product came out of that.”

Complicated projects that build in cybersecurity, and are reliable and maintainable, take time, Kendall said.

“If time is more important to you than cybersecurity, if it’s more important to you than being secure against jamming threats, then we can get rid of a lot of stuff,” Kendall said of the acquisition system. “But if it’s still important to you then we’re going to have to take time to build that for you.”

Kendall noted that sometimes the department has to move fast to fill an immediate need. And it can when it does.

“Doing a more deliberate process and making sure you’re getting the right product is sometimes the right thing to do,” he said. “Going like a bat out of hell to get something to the battlefield as quickly as you can is sometimes the right thing to do.”

He added: “If we’re going to have something in our inventory for 30 or 40 years and we don’t have an urgent need to get there, I’d rather take a little more time to get the design right.”

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Director Arati Prabhakar said the agency wants “to figure out how to blow that tradeoff up” between time and quality. She noted first during the panel that Washington usually ascribes problems with the Defense Department to the acquisition system.

“At the same time that all of this is going on in DOD land, we’re also living with these sexy commercial products in our back pockets, and you know how easy it is to download the next app and everything just works, and so why can’t it be like that?” Prabhakar said. “Well there’s a real technical reason it cannot be like that when you’re talking about upgrading a complex platform like a fighter for example.”

Kendall said to go faster, requirements need to be done in the right way “so that we’re not asking for too much, so that we ask for something that’s reasonable.”

“The dialogue between the acquisition community and the requirements community needs to be at a high level and you need to get decision-makers involved early so you can make smart tradeoffs,” Kendall said.

He also noted, “the idea that there’s some magic way to wish away the acquisition system and things [work] much, much more rapidly, is an illusion. That’s really not where the time is. The time is actually in doing the work.”

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Department of Defense (DOD), Departments
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