AF acquisition: Investing now to win the high-end fight of the future

  • Published
  • By The Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition
How does Dr. William LaPlante, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, apply his 29 years of defense technology experience to improve a $32 billion research, development and acquisition portfolio? That is the question he sought to answer.

LaPlante had recently completed a meeting focused on shaping an experimentation campaign strategy for the service, which would be the first topic of discussion.

"Our experimentation strategy is critical to our service investment strategy and efforts to prepare for what our Chief of Staff (of the Air Force) Gen. (Mark A.) Welsh (III), refers to as the 'high end fight of the future," LaPlante said.

"I have had the good fortune of working with some exceptionally talented visionary leaders in my role as the Service Acquisition Executive," he said. “I don't exaggerate when I say our Secretary of the Air Force (Deborah Lee James) and chief of staff are truly acting as the architects of our future. In their Air Force strategy document 'A Call to the Future,' they lay the foundation for what we must do to continue to be the world's greatest Air Force into the 2040s and beyond.”

Dr. LaPlante added, “I take very seriously my role, and that of the acquisition enterprise, to ensure our legacy capabilities maximize our warfighting performance in the near term, and that critical game changing technologies will be mature and available for our warfighters to win that high end fight of the future. That means we have to be the best at sustaining aging systems that are still relevant and effectively giving us an edge over our adversaries today.

“We must also be expert at planning and initiating highly successful modernization programs that are in the pipeline presently,” LaPlante continued. “Without question, we must be the best in the world at working with our warfighting partners to explore how highly advanced and cutting edge technologies can be used in concert with new warfighting tactics, techniques and procedures developed in order to enable measurably increased warfighting capabilities in the future. This is the essence of experimentation.”

LaPlante explained experimentation, along with efforts he is championing to return to the service’s roots in developmental planning, is very important to modernization and technology investment strategies and feature prominently in his acquisition priorities.

He explained, “As the senior Air Force acquisition executive, I have established a framework of priorities for the enterprise to underpin these necessities. I am attempting to improve the performance of the acquisition portfolio with five simple priorities: getting high priority programs right, improving stakeholder relationships, owning the technical baseline, ‘Better Buying Power’ and strategic agility.”

In a world driven by instant gratification, much of LaPlante’s vision will unfold over the next 20 years. He knows enduring and emerging powers have the potential to become destabilizing forces and to meet those challenges, his acquisition agenda must continue modernizing the nation’s capabilities to sustain its operational and technological edge.

Getting it right

“Fundamentally, I believe we have a solemn responsibility in the acquisition enterprise to get all programs started right,” LaPlante said. “We want to ensure we deliver products on schedule, on cost and have them delivered within the specified timeframe because these are the programs we are going to be living with for the next 50 or so years.”

Specifically, he’s talking about the Air Force’s three highest priority systems which are in various stages of development: The F-35 (Lightning II), with initial operating capability anticipated for August 2016; first flight of the KC-46A (Pegasus) this summer; and the Long-Range Strike bomber, currently in source selection with contract award also anticipated this summer.

“I realize people instinctively understand these are the huge dollar programs we’re investing in,” he said. “The future of the Air Force and its ability to be effective in the high-end fight of the future depends on the successful and timely fielding of these capabilities.”

Improve stakeholder relationships

Coming from a federally-funded research and development center background, LaPlante knows the power of working together on common issues. To that end, when a difficult challenge comes up, it’s important the customer and supplier partners know each other and that they know how to work together to solve problems.

One of those problems is the ever increasing cost of weapon systems. LaPlante has taken on this issue for the Air Force. Working with key industry leaders, LaPlante and his acquisition team are committed to working with industries to “bend the cost curve” (BTCC) to identify areas of increasing costs and work to drive those costs down.

Teams have been formed to exploit a set of best practices where internal processes are improved, industry interactions throughout the acquisition lifecycle are enhanced, and competition between traditional and non-traditional industry partners are expanded.

One of the things LaPlante noticed when he arrived at the Pentagon two years ago, was a disparate view of ground truth regarding how well the Air Force executes its major programs. There was a marked disparity about this between Pentagon insiders and the external perceptions of outsiders who monitor these programs. One example is the perception about contract award performance.

LaPlante said he was pleasantly surprised at the progress the acquisition enterprise made in reducing the number of sustained contract award protests in recent history.

“All too often people judge us today on very public past failures with programs like KC-X and CSAR-X contract award protests,” he said. ”Those challenges occurred nearly a decade ago and the Air Force has worked hard to improve its contract award performance since then.”

In order to ensure the enterprise meets the warfighter’s needs, acquisition leaders have implemented extensive source selection process improvements. Improvements like enhanced source selection training, the use of multifunctional independent review teams to “red-team” source selection work, and extensive peer reviews of source selection results. These measures have served to minimize protests against contract awards.

“Protests of an awarded contract can impact the Air Force mission, delaying systems fielding and is often a lengthy process,” said Theodora Hancock, the senior Air Force procurement analyst deputy assistant secretary for contracting.

In fiscal year 2007 the Air Force had a protest sustainment rate of 7 percent. With the new processes in place the protest sustainment rate has been reduced in 2014 to 1 percent. The overall sustained contract protest rate for the federal government as a whole by comparison, is 13 percent.

“This is an amazing improvement,” LaPlante said. “One you just don’t hear people talking about enough. The fact that this performance improvement isn’t known by external stakeholders and partners emphasizes the need for increasing transparency and improving stakeholder relationships.”

One of the new activities designed to improve stakeholder relations is the BTCC initiative. In 2014, Air Force leaders initiated BTCC to address the escalation in weapon system costs and development times.

To accomplish this BTCC amplifies Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics’ (AT&L), Better Buying Power (BBP) principles by encouraging innovation through active engagements with industry and the acquisition workforce to identify, evaluate, and implement transformational reforms.

Unlike BBP, which is a broader set of practices and techniques for the workforce to employ, BTCC is a targeted initiative to encourage innovation and active industry partnerships to improve the way we procure our systems and to drive down costs. What began as a series of discussions with industry has evolved into an ever growing set of targeted actions aimed at addressing the most critical challenges within the acquisition process.

Owning the technical baseline

According to LaPlante, during the 1990s, the acquisition workforce was significantly reduced with the Air Force losing much of its organic engineering and technical skills. It was forced to abdicate part of the “Holy Grail of technical systems knowledge,” to defense contractors who began serving as lead systems integrators and the keepers of systems knowledge and technical expertise.

As a result, the Air Force grew dependent on its contractors for help in solving problems, performing systems modeling, and making key decisions regarding the modification of legacy systems.

“The difficulty with this, is that as a result, the vendors developed a relative monopoly on sustainment, parts, etc. which ultimately led to relative price increases in the services and products the government needed to modify or sustain its systems,” LaPlante said.

“We in essence lost a generation of technical expertise and experience, and now we want to take back ‘ownership’ of the technical baseline for our systems,” he continued. “If we own it, we have the ability to control our own destiny. “

As a result, LaPlante is championing measures to increase technical skills and capabilities within the programs offices, and is challenging his program leaders to ensure they procure the appropriate systems data rights at the outset of programs to facilitate government efforts to own the technical baseline.

The initiative is formally referred to as Owning the Technical Baseline. LaPlante has commissioned a national academies study on the subject that should be reporting out very soon. OSD AT&L has also adopted the initiative as part of the new BBP 3.0 activity.

Better Buying Power

The Air Force acquisition enterprise is benefiting from OSD’s Better Buying Power set of techniques and practices. As far as the Air Force is concerned, it is ‘all in’ with respect to using BBP principals. LaPlante noted one they are using to considerable effect is Should Cost.

Should Cost is a management tool designed to proactively target cost reduction and drive productivity improvements into programs.

“I am very happy with the Air Force’s (fiscal year 2014) Should Cost performance, which has identified realized savings of $1.4 billion,” LaPlante said. ”While this is a tremendous start, I continue to challenge all program executive offices (PEO) and program managers to seek out additional Should Cost opportunities, reaping as much as possible from our current portfolio investments. This is one initiative where we can see tangible evidence of our efforts to increase warfighting capabilities within available funding, and to obtain the best business deals possible for the American taxpayer.”

Strategic agility

LaPlante is aware the basic acquisition environment involves dealing with constant change and the challenges that come with prediction failures.

“The threat is going to change, technology is going to change and warfighters will discover different ways to use their equipment,” he said. “In order for us to ensure our weapon systems, which we have historically taken 15 to 20 years to develop, can accommodate these uncertainties, we must design systems from the outset that are adaptable.

“We must design in the ability for these systems to be modified, perhaps in ways that we may not be able to anticipate now, but will discover in the future,” LaPlante continued. “This fundamentally means we must embrace adaptability, a foundational underpinning of strategic agility, as a basic precept for how we develop, procure, and sustain our weapons systems.”

LaPlante explained, “I have challenged our PEOs and program managers to capitalize on key principles of adaptable systems when they are initiating programs,” he said. “These principles include: open systems architectures, modularity, speed to fielding, and block upgrade strategies.

“In fact,” LaPlante stated. “We have identified two programs that will serve as strategic agility (adaptability) pilots for the Air Force, our new T-X trainer aircraft and Joint Stars Recapitalization program. With the T-X, we intend to take advantage of open systems architecture, a modular software design, and low risk and rapid production. For JSTARS Recap, we intend to capitalize on a modular and open systems architecture design and maximize the use of mature technologies to reduce development cycle time.”

The acquisitions community is focused on investing in an array of programs, platforms and innovative opportunities to ensure the Air Force remains effective, he said.

“This is an exciting time to be engaged in Air Force acquisitions,” said LaPlante. “Our workforce is energized and they are really doing amazing things to make a difference.”

Overall, the leader of the service’s acquisition system is pleased in the efforts to revitalize the Air Force’s acquisition performance.

”Our challenge however, remains striking the proper balance between efforts to ensure world class sustainment performance for legacy systems and investing the right intellectual and resource capital in the capabilities required to win the proverbial high end fight of the future,” LaPlante said.

“We have to use the right tools and disciplines now, to ensure we are developing and fielding the right systems that need to be there for us to win that future fight,” LaPlante said. “Knowing threats are going to change as we are working on these systems, we need to be able to pivot to affect the new threats that we can’t even see today that we know will be out there in the future.

”We’ve got the right vision and strategy and we can’t lose when they are powered by our world class acquisition workforce serving as the engine for positive change.”