Concurrency is the practice in defense procurement where phases in the acquisition process are conducted in an overlapping fashion rather than sequentially. Procurement of a system or platform is initiated before the entire research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) programs are completed. There are a number of reasons to pursue concurrency. The overlapping of phases creates a feedback loop that can inform activities before their completion. Concurrency can permit production problems to be identified early, enabling the RDT&E process to incorporate design fixes. Concurrency also permits producers to refine their production techniques and workers to improve their performance and, hopefully, reduce costs by taking advantage of the learning curve. Perhaps most important, concurrency can get systems and platforms into the hands of the users years earlier than is possible using the traditional acquisition system. Once soldiers, sailors and airmen get their hands on hardware, they identify all kinds of ways of improving its functionality and maintainability. In addition, there is no substitute for deploying systems and platforms with the warfighters to the development of new concepts of operations and tactics. Properly managed, concurrency can be a good acquisition strategy.
Unfortunately, in recent years, concurrency has become a four letter word around the Pentagon. A senior acquisition official referred to it as “acquisition malpractice.” There is a notion that the only way to manage a major acquisition program is sequentially, avoiding risks but also opportunities.
Concurrency is commonplace in wartime, where the needs of the warfighter supersede the dictates of acquisition regulations and the bureaucracy’s comfort zone. Organizations such as JIEDDO and the Rapid Equipping Force took concurrency to a high art during the recent conflicts, deploying initial systems to provide some capabilities while developing succeeding generations based on field experience and additional test and development.
Ironically, the value of concurrency is reflected in several current major acquisition programs which have been severely criticized over the years for this practice. One is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). In hindsight, because it was an international program, one designed to be produced in three variants and incorporating a wide range of new and advanced technologies, the F-35 was not the best choice when it came to the application of a concurrent acquisition strategy. Nevertheless, concurrency has proven to be of significant benefit. The Marine Corps has announced the initial operating capability (IOC) for the vertical takeoff/landing variant, the F-35B, giving that service its first ever stealthy platform. Italy has just flown its first F-35A, assembled at the Cameri Final Assembly and Check Out facility. This facility will assemble both Italian and Dutch F-35s and provide maintenance for those and other fleets. The Lockheed Martin-led contractor team has demonstrated steady progress in improving production skills and bringing down costs. The Air Force is developing a new concept of operations and tactics that take advantage of the JSF’s advanced sensor and electronic warfare capabilities that are influencing how it intends to employ both legacy and fifth-generation aircraft. All these steps would have occurred later and introduced risks and additional costs if the traditional sequential acquisition process had been employed.
Another program that has benefitted in many ways from concurrency is the Littoral Combat Ship. The LCS suffered from numerous early teething problems, virtually all of which have been overcome. IOC for the three mission modules (anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare and mine countermeasures) is expected next year. Early deployment of the first LCSs allowed the Navy to acquire extremely important operational experience that it translated into changes in design, equipment, operational concepts and sustainment. Early entry into production allowed the two builders, Marinette Marine and General Dynamics to improve their production processes to the point that both could significantly lower the price of each ship, enabling the Navy to procure both variants. Marinette Marine was able to invest in a near-total redesign of its facility that literally took miles out of the production line.
It is not clear, as critics of concurrency have asserted, that this approach adds costs to a program. A study by researchers at the Defense Acquisition University found no evidence supporting the idea that concurrency significantly increased program costs. In fact, the authors concluded that low levels of concurrency are more problematic than higher levels. Moreover, even if there are some additional costs, such as those associated with retrofitting early variants, these must be balanced against cost savings achieved due to production process and learning curve improvements that can be applied to almost the entire number of systems and platforms procured.
Concurrency poses challenges to the acquisition bureaucracy, particularly the Directorate of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). It is difficult to figure out what the appropriate standards of performance and proper tests are for a system that, in some ways, is still in development. Simply judging early variants of a system or platform according to the standards for the final version makes no sense. It is also not logical to require that later versions repeat every test performed by the early variants as if they were entirely new items. DOT&E needs to work on developing the principles to guide appropriate and reasonable test plans for programs with a significant degree of concurrency.
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