AF acquisition: Investing now to win the high-end fight of the future

How does Dr. William LaPlante, the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, apply his 29 years of defense technology experience to improve a $32 billion research, development and acquisition portfolio? That is the question he sought to answer.

LaPlante had recently completed a meeting focused on shaping an experimentation campaign strategy for the service, which would be the first topic of discussion.

Air Force Seal“Our experimentation strategy is critical to our service investment strategy and efforts to prepare for what our Chief of Staff (of the Air Force) Gen. (Mark A.) Welsh (III), refers to as the ‘high end fight of the future,” LaPlante said.

“I have had the good fortune of working with some exceptionally talented visionary leaders in my role as the Service Acquisition Executive,” he said. “I don’t exaggerate when I say our Secretary of the Air Force (Deborah Lee James) and chief of staff are truly acting as the architects of our future. In their Air Force strategy document ‘A Call to the Future,’ they lay the foundation for what we must do to continue to be the world’s greatest Air Force into the 2040s and beyond.”

Dr. LaPlante added, “I take very seriously my role, and that of the acquisition enterprise, to ensure our legacy capabilities maximize our warfighting performance in the near term, and that critical game changing technologies will be mature and available for our warfighters to win that high end fight of the future. That means we have to be the best at sustaining aging systems that are still relevant and effectively giving us an edge over our adversaries today.

“We must also be expert at planning and initiating highly successful modernization programs that are in the pipeline presently,” LaPlante continued. “Without question, we must be the best in the world at working with our warfighting partners to explore how highly advanced and cutting edge technologies can be used in concert with new warfighting tactics, techniques and procedures developed in order to enable measurably increased warfighting capabilities in the future. This is the essence of experimentation.”

LaPlante explained experimentation, along with efforts he is championing to return to the service’s roots in developmental planning, is very important to modernization and technology investment strategies and feature prominently in his acquisition priorities.

He explained, “As the senior Air Force acquisition executive, I have established a framework of priorities for the enterprise to underpin these necessities. I am attempting to improve the performance of the acquisition portfolio with five simple priorities: getting high priority programs right, improving stakeholder relationships, owning the technical baseline, ‘Better Buying Power’ and strategic agility.”

In a world driven by instant gratification, much of LaPlante’s vision will unfold over the next 20 years. He knows enduring and emerging powers have the potential to become destabilizing forces and to meet those challenges, his acquisition agenda must continue modernizing the nation’s capabilities to sustain its operational and technological edge.

Getting it right

“Fundamentally, I believe we have a solemn responsibility in the acquisition enterprise to get all programs started right,” LaPlante said. “We want to ensure we deliver products on schedule, on cost and have them delivered within the specified timeframe because these are the programs we are going to be living with for the next 50 or so years.”

Specifically, he’s talking about the Air Force’s three highest priority systems which are in various stages of development: The F-35 (Lightning II), with initial operating capability anticipated for August 2016; first flight of the KC-46A (Pegasus) this summer; and the Long-Range Strike bomber, currently in source selection with contract award also anticipated this summer.

“I realize people instinctively understand these are the huge dollar programs we’re investing in,” he said. “The future of the Air Force and its ability to be effective in the high-end fight of the future depends on the successful and timely fielding of these capabilities.”

Improve stakeholder relationships

Coming from a federally-funded research and development center background, LaPlante knows the power of working together on common issues. To that end, when a difficult challenge comes up, it’s important the customer and supplier partners know each other and that they know how to work together to solve problems.

One of those problems is the ever increasing cost of weapon systems. LaPlante has taken on this issue for the Air Force. Working with key industry leaders, LaPlante and his acquisition team are committed to working with industries to “bend the cost curve” (BTCC) to identify areas of increasing costs and work to drive those costs down.

Teams have been formed to exploit a set of best practices where internal processes are improved, industry interactions throughout the acquisition lifecycle are enhanced, and competition between traditional and non-traditional industry partners are expanded.

One of the things LaPlante noticed when he arrived at the Pentagon two years ago, was a disparate view of ground truth regarding how well the Air Force executes its major programs. There was a marked disparity about this between Pentagon insiders and the external perceptions of outsiders who monitor these programs. One example is the perception about contract award performance.

LaPlante said he was pleasantly surprised at the progress the acquisition enterprise made in reducing the number of sustained contract award protests in recent history.

“All too often people judge us today on very public past failures with programs like KC-X and CSAR-X contract award protests,” he said. ”Those challenges occurred nearly a decade ago and the Air Force has worked hard to improve its contract award performance since then.”

In order to ensure the enterprise meets the warfighter’s needs, acquisition leaders have implemented extensive source selection process improvements. Improvements like enhanced source selection training, the use of multifunctional independent review teams to “red-team” source selection work, and extensive peer reviews of source selection results. These measures have served to minimize protests against contract awards.

“Protests of an awarded contract can impact the Air Force mission, delaying systems fielding and is often a lengthy process,” said Theodora Hancock, the senior Air Force procurement analyst deputy assistant secretary for contracting.

In fiscal year 2007 the Air Force had a protest sustainment rate of 7 percent. With the new processes in place the protest sustainment rate has been reduced in 2014 to 1 percent. The overall sustained contract protest rate for the federal government as a whole by comparison, is 13 percent.

“This is an amazing improvement,” LaPlante said. “One you just don’t hear people talking about enough. The fact that this performance improvement isn’t known by external stakeholders and partners emphasizes the need for increasing transparency and improving stakeholder relationships.”

One of the new activities designed to improve stakeholder relations is the BTCC initiative. In 2014, Air Force leaders initiated BTCC to address the escalation in weapon system costs and development times.

To accomplish this BTCC amplifies Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics’ (AT&L), Better Buying Power (BBP) principles by encouraging innovation through active engagements with industry and the acquisition workforce to identify, evaluate, and implement transformational reforms.

Unlike BBP, which is a broader set of practices and techniques for the workforce to employ, BTCC is a targeted initiative to encourage innovation and active industry partnerships to improve the way we procure our systems and to drive down costs. What began as a series of discussions with industry has evolved into an ever growing set of targeted actions aimed at addressing the most critical challenges within the acquisition process.

Owning the technical baseline

According to LaPlante, during the 1990s, the acquisition workforce was significantly reduced with the Air Force losing much of its organic engineering and technical skills. It was forced to abdicate part of the “Holy Grail of technical systems knowledge,” to defense contractors who began serving as lead systems integrators and the keepers of systems knowledge and technical expertise.

As a result, the Air Force grew dependent on its contractors for help in solving problems, performing systems modeling, and making key decisions regarding the modification of legacy systems.

“The difficulty with this, is that as a result, the vendors developed a relative monopoly on sustainment, parts, etc. which ultimately led to relative price increases in the services and products the government needed to modify or sustain its systems,” LaPlante said.

“We in essence lost a generation of technical expertise and experience, and now we want to take back ‘ownership’ of the technical baseline for our systems,” he continued. “If we own it, we have the ability to control our own destiny. “

As a result, LaPlante is championing measures to increase technical skills and capabilities within the programs offices, and is challenging his program leaders to ensure they procure the appropriate systems data rights at the outset of programs to facilitate government efforts to own the technical baseline.

The initiative is formally referred to as Owning the Technical Baseline. LaPlante has commissioned a national academies study on the subject that should be reporting out very soon. OSD AT&L has also adopted the initiative as part of the new BBP 3.0 activity.

Better Buying Power

The Air Force acquisition enterprise is benefiting from OSD’s Better Buying Power set of techniques and practices. As far as the Air Force is concerned, it is ‘all in’ with respect to using BBP principals. LaPlante noted one they are using to considerable effect is Should Cost.

Should Cost is a management tool designed to proactively target cost reduction and drive productivity improvements into programs.

“I am very happy with the Air Force’s (fiscal year 2014) Should Cost performance, which has identified realized savings of $1.4 billion,” LaPlante said. ”While this is a tremendous start, I continue to challenge all program executive offices (PEO) and program managers to seek out additional Should Cost opportunities, reaping as much as possible from our current portfolio investments. This is one initiative where we can see tangible evidence of our efforts to increase warfighting capabilities within available funding, and to obtain the best business deals possible for the American taxpayer.”

Strategic agility

LaPlante is aware the basic acquisition environment involves dealing with constant change and the challenges that come with prediction failures.

“The threat is going to change, technology is going to change and warfighters will discover different ways to use their equipment,” he said. “In order for us to ensure our weapon systems, which we have historically taken 15 to 20 years to develop, can accommodate these uncertainties, we must design systems from the outset that are adaptable.

“We must design in the ability for these systems to be modified, perhaps in ways that we may not be able to anticipate now, but will discover in the future,” LaPlante continued. “This fundamentally means we must embrace adaptability, a foundational underpinning of strategic agility, as a basic precept for how we develop, procure, and sustain our weapons systems.”

LaPlante explained, “I have challenged our PEOs and program managers to capitalize on key principles of adaptable systems when they are initiating programs,” he said. “These principles include: open systems architectures, modularity, speed to fielding, and block upgrade strategies.

“In fact,” LaPlante stated. “We have identified two programs that will serve as strategic agility (adaptability) pilots for the Air Force, our new T-X trainer aircraft and Joint Stars Recapitalization program. With the T-X, we intend to take advantage of open systems architecture, a modular software design, and low risk and rapid production. For JSTARS Recap, we intend to capitalize on a modular and open systems architecture design and maximize the use of mature technologies to reduce development cycle time.”

The acquisitions community is focused on investing in an array of programs, platforms and innovative opportunities to ensure the Air Force remains effective, he said.

“This is an exciting time to be engaged in Air Force acquisitions,” said LaPlante. “Our workforce is energized and they are really doing amazing things to make a difference.”

Overall, the leader of the service’s acquisition system is pleased in the efforts to revitalize the Air Force’s acquisition performance.

”Our challenge however, remains striking the proper balance between efforts to ensure world class sustainment performance for legacy systems and investing the right intellectual and resource capital in the capabilities required to win the proverbial high end fight of the future,” LaPlante said.

“We have to use the right tools and disciplines now, to ensure we are developing and fielding the right systems that need to be there for us to win that future fight,” LaPlante said. “Knowing threats are going to change as we are working on these systems, we need to be able to pivot to affect the new threats that we can’t even see today that we know will be out there in the future.

”We’ve got the right vision and strategy and we can’t lose when they are powered by our world class acquisition workforce serving as the engine for positive change.”


Commerce’s innovation exec seeks to hire entrepreneurs

The chief of innovation in the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration wants to bring more entrepreneurs into government, perhaps as two-year fellows, she said on Wednesday.

“There is lots of entrepreneurial thinking in government—it’s surprising,” Julie Lenzer Kirk, director of Commerce’s Office of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, told small business owners at a conference of the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council. But she added that when she ran the state of Maryland’s Center for Entrepreneurship, “I would tell business people, ‘You’re my tribe.’ When I got to government, I’m still trying to fit into the tribe.”

The EDA’s role, Kirk said in a pep talk to small business contractors titled “It Takes a Village,” is not direct investment like the Small Business Administration, but helping build capacity through partnerships, grants, and tools that bring people together. “Making sure state and local officials understand that small businesses are the job creators is essential,” she added. It’s “connecting the dots” on a regional basis because “what works in Detroit is not what is needed in Atlanta.”

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New DoD acquisition rules skipped public comment period

The Defense Department (DoD) issued 49 new acquisition rules between fiscal 2010 and 2014 that didn’t include any public comment period. The department said “urgent and compelling” circumstances forced the agency to move quickly on a rule in order to make a procurement, says an April 17 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

pentagon-sealThe DoD’s acquisition rulemaking procedures generally require it to issue a proposed rule first that provides no less than a 30-day public comment period, GAO says. However, the requirements may be waived if DoD determines that “urgent and compelling” circumstances make compliance with the requirements impracticable.

In those instances, DOD issues a temporary interim rule that provides at least a 30-day public comment period. DoD may then issue a subsequent final rule after considering any comments received, the report says.

From fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2014, DoD published 279 final and interim Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement (DFARS) rules.

Of the 279 final and interim DFARS rules, 139 were issued without prior notice and comment before they became effective.

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Backseat drivers plague procurement

Top defense acquisition managers on likened the procurement process in the armed services to a dysfunctionally piloted bus with dozens of backseat drivers — and did so in front of some of those drivers.

Heidi Shyu,  Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology

Heidi Shyu, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology

“Each seat on the bus is equipped with its own steering wheel and brakes, but no accelerator,” Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology Heidi Shyu said during an April 22 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee.

Each of the drivers, she said, was capable of steering the vehicle in their own direction at the expense of the other drivers. The only thing each couldn’t do was drive the bus forward.

The Senate and House Armed Services committee have made defense acquisition reform a priority, though congressional micromanagement has sometimes been cited as one of the problems with the process.

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New robotic vehicle provides a never-before-seen look under Antarctica

A first-of-its-kind robotic vehicle recently dove to depths never before visited under Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf and brought back video of life on the seafloor.

A team of scientists and engineers from the Georgia Institute of Technology assembled the unmanned, underwater vehicle on Antarctica. They deployed (and retrieved) the vehicle through a 12-inch diameter hole through 20 meters of ice and another 500 meters of water to the sea floor.

The robotic vehicle, called Icefin, carried a scientific payload capable of measuring ocean conditions under the ice. Icefin’s readings of the environment under Antarctica’s ice shelves, and video of the life that thrives in these harsh conditions, will help understand how Antarctica’s ice shelves are changing under warming conditions, and to understand how organisms thrive in cold and light-free environments. The technologies developed for Icefin will also help in the search for life on other planets, namely Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Antarctica’s icy oceans are remarkably similar to Europa’s ice-capped oceans.

“We built a vehicle that’s a hybrid between the really small probes and the ocean-going vessels, and we can deploy it through bore holes on Antarctica,” said Britney Schmidt, an assistant professor in the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at the Georgia Tech, and the principle investigator for the Icefin project. “At the same time, we’re advancing hypotheses that we need for Europa and understanding ocean systems here better. We’re also developing and getting comfortable with technologies that make polar science — and eventually Europa science — more realistic.”

Icefin was deployed as a part of the Sub Ice Marine and Planetary–analog Ecosystem (SIMPLE) program, funded by NASA and supported by NSF, with Schmidt as the principle investigator. The research team returned from Antarctica in December 2014. Icefin is planned to make its Arctic debut in summer 2016, with a return to Antarctica that fall, the team hopes. 

At McMurdo Station, Schmidt and a team including Georgia Tech scientists and engineers from the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI), led by principal research engineer Mick West, deployed Icefin to explore the underside of the ice shelves flowing off the continent.

“What truly separates Icefin from some of the other vehicles is that it’s fairly slender, yet still has all of the sensors that the scientists like Britney need,” West said. “Our vehicle has instrumentation aboard both for navigation and ocean science that other vehicles do not.”

The Southern Ocean can be as deep as 5,000 meters. Icefin is capable of diving 1,500 meters and can perform three-kilometer-long surveys. Previous vehicles in Icefin’s class were rated to a few hundred meters.

“We saw evidence of a complex community on the sea floor that has never been observed before, and unprecedented detail on the ice-ocean interface that hasn’t been achieved before,” Schmidt said.

Video captured by Icefin shows eerie footage of an active seafloor 500 meters under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“Biologists at McMurdo were just amazed at the amount of biology at that location which included sea stars, sponges and anemones that were at the ocean bottom,” West said. “To have our very first deep-ocean dive happen through a small hole in the ice and go all the way to the ocean bottom and get the video we did was pretty amazing.”

To get to the bottom, Icefin first had to be built. A partnership between research-focused GTRI and academic-focused School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences (EAS) enabled the team to design, build and deploy Icefin under the ice in less than a year. Traditional design cycles for these types of vehicles typically are two to three years.

The team had to design for a number of challenges associated with deploying Icefin in such an extreme environment. For example, standard electronics systems are not typically rated to the extreme temperatures found under the Ross Ice Shelf.

“We had probably 100 contingencies for if something went wrong,” West said. “Through lots of analysis and robust design, we were fortunate not to have to initiate any of them.”

Once Icefin was assembled, the vehicle was deployed through a bore hole in the ice that was 12 inches in diameter and 20 meters deep. Bore holes are often drilled on Antarctica for ocean moorings and sediment sampling.

Traditional underwater vehicles deployed on Antarctica are either “roving eyes” because they carry only a camera, or much larger vehicles that are deployed in the water on the edge of the ice shelf. Icefin fills the gap between these two kinds of vehicles: able to be deployed easily by small teams in any environment, yet still able to record oceanographic information traditionally done by much larger vehicles.

“Icefin is the most capable small vehicle that’s been down there,” Schmidt said. “What’s really rewarding is that at the same time, we were able to involve some outstanding students in the design, build and deployment of the vehicle.”

Graduate student Anthony Spears and undergraduate Matthew Meister, as well as Georgia Tech Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP) program participants, were involved in design of the vehicle. Spears and Meister also played key roles in the field integration and deployment of Icefin, along with EAS postdoctoral fellow Catherine Walker and graduate student Jacob Buffo from Icefin’s science team.

Icefin carries forward and up/down imaging and sonars and several different sensors. Icefin is also modular, similar to vehicles used on space missions. Scientists can swap sensors or point them in different directions as needed.

Traditional GPS does not work under the ice, so Icefin uses a navigation system called SLAM (simultaneous localization and mapping) to triangulate its position based on measuring the range and bearing of features on the seafloor or under the ice.

“Using algorithms such as SLAM allows us to construct a map of the unknown under-ice environment. When you can do that, you can begin to get a 3D picture of what’s going on under the water,” West said.

The sensors on Icefin are helping scientists understand how the ocean affects properties of the ice, and how the ice affects properties of the ocean. The exchange between ocean and ice is a process that mediates biology, affects the climate system and controls the stability of glaciers.

“Those are important processes that we can work out here in our backyard at the same time as we’re answering how an ice shell would reflect the ocean chemistry on Europa,” Schmidt said. “The ice shell is built out of the ocean, but how that process works is not well understood.”

Source:  This research is supported by Georgia Institute of Technology and the School of Earth and Atmospheric sciences through Schmidt’s startup funds, and partnership with GTRI. Icefin deployed to Antarctica with SIMPLE funded by NASA through grant NNX12AL65G. Deployment was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under project B259. Any conclusions or opinions are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the sponsoring agencies.

Can states teach the feds about procurement?

[The following article was written by Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association.]  

Having recently attended an event by the National Association of State Procurement Officials (NASPO), one is struck by the alignment of the issues, conversations, and knowledge areas across different sectors. There is much these days that supply chain, state, local, and federal communities could learn from each other. Yet real or perceived organizational, logistical, and cultural differences persist, limiting the identification of problems within one community or another, as well as potential solutions.

The challenge is to look beyond norms and see opportunities across sectors and even nations.

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Agencies may evaluate proposals during GAO protests, says court

A procuring agency was entitled to evaluate proposals during the course of a pre-award GAO bid protest without violating the automatic stay provision of the Competition in Contracting Act.

According to a recent federal court decision, CICA merely prohibits the award of a contract during the course of a GAO protest, but does not prevent an agency from continuing to evaluate proposals.

GAO-GovernmentAccountabilityOffice-SealThe decision of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims in Caddell Construction Co., LLC v. United States, Nos. 15-135 C & 15-136 C (2015) involved a State Department solicitation to construct embassy facilities in Mozambique.  Caddell Construction Co., Inc. filed two pre-award GAO protests challenging the pre-qualification of two of its competitors.

While the GAO was in the process of evaluating the protests, Caddell learned that the agency was continuing to evaluate proposals while it awaited the GAO’s decisions.  Caddell filed an action in the Court of Federal Claims, arguing that the agency was violating the CICA automatic stay provision.

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DoD stresses cybersecurity in acquisition reform update

The Defense Department is focusing part of its acquisition overhaul on cybersecurity, according to new guidance.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall on Thursday issued instructions for implementing Better Buying Power 3.0, the third version of an efficiency directive originally introduced in 2010. The directive aims to increase productivity and reduce costs in DOD technology and logistics. Specific strategies include using commercial technology and encouraging more prototyping and experimentation, among other approaches.

The update includes specific plans to strengthen cybersecurity. Though DOD is already working to improve military system cybersecurity, “from concept development to disposal,” the instructions added, “much more needs to be done.”

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Longtime procurement expert Dan Gordon set to retire

Come mid-summer, one of the workhorses of federal procurement is set to retire after decades of direct and advisory service to the government.

Dan Gordon, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) and now an associate dean at George Washington University Law School, told FCW in an interview that he has been gradually pulling back from his many advisory roles in the last few months with an eye to retiring by July.

“The goal for July 1 is full retirement,” he said, adding that after that he plans to focus on his continuing study of Chinese languages and then, whatever comes.

Looking back, Gordon said his enthusiasm for the federal government’s procurement system is undimmed, even in the face of the increasing complexity and technological changes that have many calling for reform of the system.

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Some DOT contracting officers not certified for high-dollar contracts

Nearly a quarter of Transportation Department contracting officers didn’t comply with certification specifications when working on certain high dollar acquisitions, says an April 9, 2015 DOT inspector general report.

In fiscal 2014, DOT obligated $2 billion on contracts.

To help ensure those contracts meet federal and departmental requirements, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) requires that contracting officers be certified at the appropriate level to correspond with the dollar value of contracts, the report says.

OFPP also directed each agency’s chief acquisition officer to establish agency-specific certification and warrant requirements.

But of the 63 contracting officers GAO reviewed, 15, or about 24 percent, did not fully comply with those requirements.

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Read the DOT IG’s report here: