DoD readying new approach to IT acquisition

Wednesday - 7/7/2010, 6:33am EDT

WFED's Jason Miller

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By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

The Defense Department is scheduled to deliver its plan to Congress later this month to change how it develops technology systems to mirror the same approach it has used for decades with the B-52 bomber.

DoD first hired Boeing to develop the B-52 in 1952, and over the last 58 years it has updated every part of the plane one piece at a time.

"We want to maintain the base system and rapidly develop applications over time," says Tim Harp, DoD's deputy assistant secretary of Defense for command, control, communications, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and information technology acquisition in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Networks and Information Integration in an interview with Federal News Radio earlier this year.

"Our other problem is we can't ever replace a system because it is a part of a spider web of systems so we can't turn off because it may be connected to some other critical capability we weren't aware of. We have to maintain they systems over time so by building off the base that we have, we can inject new capabilities without disrupting the existing ones."

The idea to change technology acquisition to a more agile or modular approach isn't new. The Defense Science Board has suggested the Pentagon move in that direction for years. Finally, Congress in the fiscal 2010 Defense authorization act mandated the plan 270 days after the bill became law. President Barack Obama signed the bill into law last October.

In the law, Congress required DoD to develop a policy for IT acquisition to address:

  • Early and continual involvement of the user;
  • Multiple, rapidly executed increments or releases of capability;
  • Early, successive prototyping to support an evolutionary approach;
  • A modular, open-systems approach.

The end result is to move away from the traditional way DoD develops technology, which modeled after the major weapons system approach that can take up to 91 months to implement a final system and to a rapid acquisition process.

"We want to take advantage of that speed of technology evolution," Harp says. "It has evolved to the point where we recognize IT is inherently different than weapons systems, and the risk is different too."

In many ways, DoD's guidance is a forerunner to the Office of Management and Budget's recent guidance on how to improve the development of financial management systems.

Defense deputy secretary William Lynn further outlined DoD's plan in a speech in May to the U.S. Strategic Command. He says it can take up to 81 months from conception to funding to final product and that is way too long.

Lynn pointed to Apple's 24 month development of the iPhone as an example that DoD must follow.

"We need to match the acquisition process to the technology development cycle. In IT, this means 12 to 36 months cycles, not 7 or 8 years," Lynn said.

Second, we must acknowledge that incremental development, testing, and whenever possible, fielding of new capabilities provides better outcomes in IT than trying to deploy large complex systems in one "big bang." Third, to achieve speedy, incremental improvements, we need to carefully examine how to establish the requirements that govern acquisition. Systems must always be tailored to serve the needs of end users, but departing from standard architectures in IT imposes great costs. To achieve speed, we must be willing to sacrifice or defer some customization. Making use of established standards, and open modular platforms, is of paramount importance.

He adds that DoD also must recognize that there are a wide variety of needs across the department and each of these systems demand different levels of oversight and enterprise integration.

"We are working to outline a series of acquisition paths that apply high levels of institutional due diligence where it is needed and strip away excess requirements where it is not," he said. "The problem we are trying to solve is not an easy one. The Defense Department has unique IT needs that limit our ability to replicate the dynamism of private industry."

Harp says there will be several benefits for DoD, including reduced costs, better quality and more timely systems development.

"The new process will open up doors to non-traditional suppliers, including small businesses whose work is now wrapped up with large business projects," he says. "The process will provide us with a whole different set of criteria for success. We will not just change the oversight, but increase oversight and make whole process more open and have a better dialogue more frequently."