Disrupting Acquisition Blog
Digital Defense Acquisition 2024
A vision for how DoD can achieve its own moonshot by transforming the world’s biggest bureaucracy.
Imagine for a moment, the year is 2024. DoD acquisition executives and practitioners completed a remarkable five-year digital transformation of the defense acquisition enterprise. The bureaucracy became a high-performing ecosystem consisting of government, industry, academia, and partner organizations operating with speed, agility, and innovation. The ecosystem is aligned with and focused on regularly delivering priority capabilities to operational commands for mission success. Digital transformation led to streamlined defense organizations’ processes and documentation. Acquisition professionals, armed with a new suite of digital tools, follow many pathways to navigate the complex environment with greater speed, knowledge, and success. Teams dynamically self-organize and collaborate across organizations and locations. Defense acquisitions achieved the 2018 National Defense Strategy vision by delivering affordable, innovative solutions at the speed of relevance.
The Modern Defense Acquisition Enterprise
In this optimized structure, the DoD ecosystem is a dynamic, collaborative network spanning operations, intelligence, research centers, requirements, acquisition, budget, industry, academia, think tanks, and Allied nations. The acquisition enterprise rapidly responds to changes in national security strategies, priorities, missions, threats, and opportunities. These changes shape how we fight (concepts of operations), rapidly deliver new capabilities, or re-purpose existing capabilities for new missions. Defense capabilities also reached a tipping point from hardware dominant to software dominant solutions, offering greater speed, agility, and innovation. While the performance of hardware-dominant systems of the past progressed along linear scales, software capabilities in the Digital Era ride the curve of Moore’s Law to achieve exponential improvements. This allows America’s leading innovation organizations to provide a robust pipeline of new solutions that can ensure U.S. military superiority for decades to come.
A secure digital platform provides the foundation to harness the collective intelligence of the hundreds of thousands of professionals across the ecosystem. Acquisition professionals draw upon the insights of lessons learned to rapidly scale best practices and address risks. Enterprise policies, processes, and knowledge are proactively tailored for local organizations and specific types of acquisitions. Acquisition tools and processes seamlessly integrate new laws, policies, and initiatives. Dynamic pathways are tailored and streamlined to individual capabilities to refine requirements; explore alternatives; and navigate the acquisition pathway to deliver solutions. Acquisition programs, once managed as large, stovepiped systems, are now delivered as integrated suites of capabilities via acquisition portfolios.
In the previous Analog Era, prior to 2020 in DoD, acquisition professionals struggled with cumbersome policies, processes, and oversight layers as they sought to execute their programs. The default acquisition model was designed for exquisite billion-dollar weapon systems, and an entrenched, risk-averse bureaucracy believed that doing anything right took immense amounts of time and resources. This drove development of large, complex systems that took a decade to deliver, with many systems cancelled before fielding. New acquisition laws, policies, and initiatives took years to implement, with significant debate and confusion across headquarters staffs and program offices leading to further program delays. The cautious requirements, acquisition, and budget bureaucracies transferred risk to the operational commands. This forced operators to fight with obsolete technologies whose vulnerabilities our adversaries were eager to exploit or with systems that did not reflect the current technological or operational environment.
For decades, the wealth of DoD acquisition knowledge was scattered across the enterprise, often in unknown locations. It was locked in PDF files, poorly scanned policy memos, tightly controlled program documents, outdated websites that were difficult to access or navigate, and the minds of over 200,000 acquisition professionals. As DoD lacked a common, robust, user-friendly knowledge repository, insights and lessons were slowly shared across local organizations and personal networks.
Meanwhile in the commercial sector, Google’s search engine indexes billions of web pages, along with Wikipedia’s online encyclopedia, gives users worldwide access to the knowledge they seek. Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter provide social media platforms for billions of users to connect and share insights and stories. Worldwide, organizations spend $2 trillion on digital transformation to keep up with the pace of change of innovative technologies. DoD applied the strategies of these leading platforms and organizations to transform its operations. The digital platform integrated, curated, and tailored that knowledge for DoD professionals. Data, as the lifeblood of these platforms, were finally valued, structured, and analyzed, providing extraordinary insights into enterprise health and trends to enable compelling user experiences.
How Did We Get Here?
Looking back from 2024, the turning point for defense acquisition was the establishment of the new Under Secretaries for Defense (USD) Acquisition and Sustainment (A&S) and Research and Engineering (R&E) organizations in 2018 after Congress broke up the monolithic Acquisition Technology and Logistics bureaucracy. Congress and DoD executives delegated decision authorities to Service Acquisition Executives, who further delegated many authorities to their Program Executive Officers. Congress also established a series of new rapid acquisition pathways and flexible authorities to streamline or circumvent lengthy, outmoded processes from the Industrial Era. The Section 809 Panel, established by Congress, outlined dozens of bold reforms to streamline defense acquisition and break down barriers that prevented industry from offering innovative solutions. The Defense Innovation Board marshaled some of the nation’s top software experts to transform how DoD develops and deploys software.
This once-in-a-generation, perfect storm of reforms provided fertile ground for DoD’s digital transformation. DoD executives across the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, Services, and Agencies recognized the need for and the opportunity to implement a digital transformation. Digital technologies played an important role, but the real key to transformation was rethinking defense acquisition processes, engagements, and models – not developing a hypersonic, blockchained, artificial intelligence (AI)-powered internet-of-things, 5G technology solution for the acquisition workforce.
DoD established the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), in partnership with the Digital Defense Service, with a bold leader and team to champion and execute a digital vision. The DTO was directed to work with key stakeholders and experts to:
- Redesign DoD processes to deliver affordable solutions leveraging digital tools and strategies
- Re-engineer or eliminate bad processes, rather than automate them
- Harness the power of platforms to share collective intelligence and continually lean processes
- Partner with practitioners, functional leaders, technologists, and industry to redesign how DoD does business, including new policies, processes, documentation, and governance.
- Provide the workforce with an integrated suite of tools to aid collaboration and to automate and modernize processes.
In 2019, the USD(A&S) took a clean sheet approach to rewriting DoD’s flagship acquisition policies. USD(A&S) minimized and simplified acquisition policies to give acquisition professionals the maximum flexibility while complying with the law. The 172-page DoD Instruction 5000.02 was condensed to 15 pages and digitized online as part of an integrated policy and guidance environment. Similarly, the Services hacked their acquisition policies from 150–300 pages to under 30 pages each as part of the digital platform. The bulk of the policy content centered on guiding principles and a framework for tailored acquisition pathways. This clean sheet approach to acquisition policies enabled the development of a new digital acquisition environment. Complementing each lean policy was robust guidance online with valuable resources, case studies, and exemplar strategies. Untethered from old bureaucratic practices and mindsets, the acquisition workforce had the freedom to more easily develop new processes, reviews, and documentation leveraging a digital platform rather than having to undertake the harder and longer work of re-engineering the entrenched Goliath.
The DTO explored the lifecycle of an acquisition program in the Digital Age. At the beginning of the lifecycle, when the need for a capability is identified, the PEO’s staff creates a website on the digital platform. An established data structure manages who has access to strategies, requirements, analysis, designs, budgets, and other data. This includes a companion public-facing web-page providing current fact-sheet information. Laws, policies, guides, templates, research, and initiatives are integrated to shape the platform’s business rules. As programs delivering hundreds of capabilities navigate their tailored lifecycles, AI iteratively improves the platform. The digital platform gives executives and portfolio managers insight into the health and progress of each acquisition, rapidly identifies individual and systemic issues, and tailors program guidance and pathways for speed and success.
Executives collaboratively develop, coordinate, and approve acquisition strategies online via the secure digital platform. The digital platform guides users in strategy development based on inputs, business rules, and machine learning from related acquisitions. The strategies focus on outcomes and the actions to achieve them, rather than on production of large documents for milestone reviews. Like tax preparation software that checks for accuracy, completion, and audit risk, the digital platform validates that strategies are complete and identifies potential risks. Large milestone reviews with dozens of executives and staffs are replaced by regular online collaboration with key stakeholders and functional experts. Meetings, in-person or online, are limited to address open issues. With the burden of lengthy documentation reviews eliminated, strategies are kept current online and updates shared with key stakeholders.
The USD(A&S) Adaptive Acquisition Framework serves as the foundation for a suite of digitized acquisition pathways to guide acquisition programs. Acquisition professionals can now select a pathway based on the type of capabilities they are acquiring and navigate their lifecycle via an optimized path. DoD streamlined and digitized each process in the acquisition pathways, minimizing documentation, reviews, and debates with headquarters staff over tailoring. The digital resource provides guidance at each step, leveraging laws, policies, guides, templates, and lessons from related systems. DoD delivers capabilities iteratively in a fraction of the time needed in previous decades, with billions in cost savings, while strengthening U.S. military superiority.
At an enterprise level, the DoD continued to reduce headquarters staff levels, improving the tooth-to-tail ratio by allocating more personnel to program offices and operational commands. Expertise was reassigned from the halls of the Pentagon to the acquisition portfolios across the country. Acquisition knowledge is integrated, curated, and disseminated via the digital platform to arm DoD professionals with insights to navigate the complex environment. More enterprise-wide solutions stem from scaling exemplar program strategies than from top-down direction from Congress or Pentagon executives. Policies regularly evolve, reflecting current leadership direction and priorities in a dynamic environment, and policies are drafted, coordinated, and approved in a transparent and collaborative online model. Additions or changes are made without having to revisit the entire policy and obtain lengthy approvals. Interested stakeholders are notified of proposed changes, offered opportunities to contribute or provide feedback via the digital platform, and can track progress online. As the workforce has insight and collaboration during the development phase, they can adopt the policies faster and more effectively. A core principle of DoD executives is to keep policies to a minimum, while expanding guidance, program best practices and lessons learned, and tailored, digital solutions. The primary role of headquarters staffs shifted from program oversight to removing barriers and enabling program success.
Enterprise-wide collaboration tools allow DoD to operate a more dynamic ecosystem than the rigid, antiquated organizational structures of the past. These tools have proven most useful in the early stages of designing a capability solution. Technologists, operators, acquisition professionals, and others collaborate on a wide variety of ideas to meet operational demands. They discuss and define the tradespace, apply design thinking, and rapidly prototype and experiment to accelerate learning and deliver affordable solutions. DoD professionals collaborate within their functional communities to advance their personal and collective development by sharing knowledge, research, and strategies. Teams dynamically form to address a capability or enterprise challenge or opportunity, tapping experts from across DoD. All acquisition personnel adopt DoD’s collaborative culture, which allows them to design more joint solutions and warfighting constructs than ever thought possible.
Data fuels the digital platform and business operations. As each capability progresses through its lifecycle, the platform constantly captures data to identify trends and support decisions. This has improved enterprise and program performance considerably. As part of a continuous effort to reduce the time from idea to delivery, the top schedule drivers are tracked and reported with teams assigned to streamline each process. Algorithms in the digital platform are continuously refined based on how capabilities perform through the lifecycle. While executives have championed data-driven decisions for years, they finally have current, accurate, and actionable data to support their decision making.
DoD was able to digitally transform its defense acquisition enterprise thanks to the perfect timing and alignment of needs and opportunities, driven largely by the threat to our military superiority from near-peer adversaries that rapidly exploit leading-edge technology. Congress and DoD executives embarked on years of strategic reforms to provide acquisition executives and practitioners greater authorities and flexibilities. Commercial enterprises matured digital strategies and tools to the point where DoD could apply them to shape its bureaucracy. The digital transformation required a commitment from DoD executives to provide the vision, leadership, and resources to finally challenge entrenched cultures, processes, and systems with the new model for defense acquisition operations. While we are in the early stages of the Digital Era, the future looks promising.
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