Today, everyone in the Department of Defense is talking about acquisition reform. Congress has instituted major changes to the way the Office of the Secretary of Defense is organized in order to improve its ability to rapidly identify, acquire and procure advanced technologies.
It also has expanded the ability of procurement officials to employ rapid acquisition methods. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has declared that “to keep pace with our times, the department will transition to a culture of performance and affordability that operates at the speed of relevance.”
Virtually all those familiar with the current acquisition system agree that the upfront process of defining requirements, developing requests for proposals (RFP), evaluating submissions and awarding contracts takes too long.
The Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord, explicitly acknowledged the need to radically reform this part of the acquisition system: “I’ve concluded that we have the ability to reduce this procurement lead time by as much as 50 percent; significantly reducing our costs while accelerating our timelines for fielding major capability.”
Another well-recognized weakness in the current way of doing business is the tendency to over specify requirements and to write them in ways that tie contractors’ hands. This is a particular problem for large, long-term procurement contracts in areas where the technology changes rapidly, such as information technology (IT).
An example of the challenge facing the Pentagon in its efforts to acquire capabilities “at the speed of relevance” is the Navy’s struggle to develop a definitive RFP for the recompete of the contract to manage and support its massive IT network, the Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN-R).
I have written elsewhere about my concerns with the way the Navy is approaching this new effort. Fundamentally, the Navy’s acquisition culture fails to reflect the realities of an era of great power competition or the need to achieve both relevance and speed.
One indication that the Navy has a problem with its acquisition strategy is the fact that it has been working on the NGEN-R RFP for more than three years. Over this period, the Navy has held multiple industry days. It has solicited inputs from industry on several draft RFPs. Just about every Friday for the last year, there has been a conference call by the contracting officers with technology companies.
The Navy has repeatedly pushed back the date at which it expects to release the NGEN-R RFP. Despite all its efforts to get NGEN-R right, the Navy announced the other day that it was yet again delaying the expected release date for the RFP to July 2018 or even later.
Clearly, the Navy recognizes that its NGEN-R acquisition strategy is not ready for prime time. In a way, this is understandable. The combination of constrained defense budgets and a focus on contracting on the lowest price at the expense of capabilities has starved the current network of investments and restricted its ability to provide the warfighter with cutting-edge capabilities.
As a result, NGEN is not meeting the warfighters’ needs today, much less those that are going to arise as a result of the shift in the Pentagon’s focus from counterinsurgency to potential high-end conflicts with peer competitors.
Although the Navy officials in charge of the procurement have talked about wanting new ideas from industry, there is little evidence that the Navy has taken on any of these suggestions. Nor do Navy officials appear to be cognizant of how rapidly networking technologies are evolving. Based on the draft RFPs that have been made public, NGEN-R is focused essentially on providing the same set of services for which the Navy contracted in 2013 in the original NGEN contract. The provision of advanced capabilities is not part of the basic contract.
Instead, network modernization is limited to a set of options that will be exercised at the Navy’s discretion. Unfortunately, there is a history of these options not being exercised. This is what has happened with the current contract. Where is the relevance Secretary Mattis is demanding?
If the Navy won’t listen to the Secretary of Defense, it might want to pay attention to its own leadership. The Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition, James F. Geurts, has taken issue publicly with the Navy’s plan to migrate all their network applications to the cloud in five years, declaring that “we need to get all the apps on the cloud in three years or less.” The NGEN-R program isn’t prepared to meet such an exacting timeline.
The latest delay in the release of the NGEN-R RFP is an opportunity for the Navy to do things differently. First and foremost, it should redefine its acquisition strategy in order to ensure that the largest network in the Department of Defense is effective, secure, affordable and simultaneously modernized.
Second, the Navy can go beyond the current set of contractually limited and outdated services which is all that the most recent draft RFP requires. Third, the Navy should harmonize its networking activities and investments with major defense department IT initiatives. Finally, it is vital to ensure that NGEN-R aligns with how networking requirements will evolve in an era of great power competition.
In addition to demanding speed and relevance from the acquisition system, Secretary Mattis is insistent that everything being done supports the needs of the warfighter. The reality is that our Sailors and Marines, the people who use the network, need more from it than what is currently being offered in NGEN-R. In order to meet the warfighters’ needs, not just today but in five years, NGEN-R must ensure that the network architecture and bandwidth will support cloud-based services and enhanced resiliency and have a clear path to improved performance.
Like the other Services, the Navy is ‘talking the talk’ when it comes to acquisition reform and the need to provide advanced capabilities to the warfighter more quickly. Recasting the NGEN-R RFP is one way that the Navy can show that it can also ‘walk the walk.’ The Navy should take the extra time it now has to ensure that when the new contract is awarded, it will provide future IT services at the speed of relevance.
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