Air Force models rapid IT development

Tuesday - 2/8/2011, 6:39pm EST

Jared Serbu, Reporter, Federal News Radio

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By Jared Serbu
Reporter
Federal News Radio

Just a few months ago, the Defense Department laid out its plans to streamline and speed up the way it acquires and develops information technology. As one Air Force official sees it, it's not a pie-in-the-sky idea - in fact, it's already being done.

DoD's target for IT acquisition is 19 months. Steve Wert, the Air Force program executive officer for C4ISR - Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance - said he has mandated an even more compressed timeline for his $3.3 billion portfolio.

"As a milestone decision authority and a PEO, I've made a rule on my programs that development cycles will be 12 months or less," he said. "Depending on the extent of tests, 18 months to field. I do expect rare exceptions, but I actually haven't had to approve any yet. So it is possible."

Wert spoke to industry leaders at an AFCEA luncheon in Pentagon City.

DoD presented its roadmap for IT acquisition reform to Congress in November with shorter, more agile development cycles of IT as its centerpiece. The department said it intended to move toward systems that can be developed and fielded in less than 18 months-a significant shift from a process that deputy Defense secretary William Lynn said was taking up to seven years.

Wert said shortening the acquisition cycle requires a change in culture and in thinking from the drawn-out weapons system acquisition model that the military services are accustomed to. But he said it can be done, with effective oversight.

"Cost and schedule overruns are really such commonplace occurrences in how we do business that we've kind of become used to it," he said. "That represents a huge waste of resources. On my initial reviews of programs as I became a new PEO, it was a common occurrence for a program manager to walk in and tell me, 'we've had a little issue, it's going to take a few more months.' I said, 'no, it's not. Figure it out.'"

Wert said there's no good reason for IT projects to take a long time any more. He said the days of issuing a solicitation for hundreds of thousands of lines of customized computer code to meet a particular requirement are largely over, for both industry and government.

"Nobody develops software that way anymore," he said. "Literally within the past few years, IT infrastructure-things we call service-oriented architecture-are becoming readily available. It used to be, 'how do we design one?' Now it's 'let's pick one and buy it.'"

But one challenge Wert faces in buying IT off the shelf, or from anywhere else, is a lack of skilled Air Force acquisition experts. He said the service clearly outsourced and downsized too much of its acquisition workforce over the last decade.

"The atrophy that happened, especially in our government workforce, really is shocking," he said. "We went so far below critical mass. Last May I did a deep dive on a billion dollar program, and we had four civilian employees [managing it]. So we clearly went too far."

It's a problem that DoD recognizes as well. The acquisition workforce is one of the few areas that secretary Robert Gates exempted in his hiring freeze in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And Congress included provisions designed to strengthen the acquisition workforce in the 2011 Defense authorization bill. President Obama signed the measure in January.

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