In December of 2015, I was invited to testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee, on the topic of defense acquisition reform. The video is available on the Senate’s website, but here is a transcript of my opening statement.
My perspective on acquisition reform can be summed up in two words: constraints work.
That perspective is based on my 20 years of service as an Air Force acq officer and my research over the past decade. I’ve observed that small teams who embrace constraints tend to outperform large teams who adopt an expansive mentality of “take your time, spare no expense.”
I contend that if we want the acquisition community to deliver world-class, affordable systems at the speed of need, we must look to small teams with short schedules, tight budgets, and a deep commitment to simplicity. We should resist the urge to launch big, slow, expensive programs, which inevitably cost more, take longer, and do less than promised. As I explained in an article about technology lessons from Star Wars, we should build droids, not Death Stars. Droids work, Death Stars keep getting blown up. This does not just happen in the movies – it happens in real life.
The opening story in my book FIRE is about the Condor Cluster, a supercomputer developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory in 2010. At the time, it was the fastest supercomputer in the entire DoD. Remarkably, it cost less than one-tenth the price of a comparable machine. How did AFRL produce a best-in-class technology on a shoestring budget? They built the Condor Cluster out of 1,760 PlayStation 3’s, which makes it an interesting, funny story… but also an important story.
If the scientists and engineers at AFRL had a large budget for that particular project, they would have bought a standard supercomputer… which would have cost more and been slower than the system they actually developed. Their small budget forced them to pursue a different path – which not only saved a lot of money, it also outperformed every other supercomputer in the Pentagon’s inventory.
And that is a key point. A constrained approach helps save money, but that is a secondary objective. The primary objective is to ensure we deliver best-in-class capabilities, so that our men and women in uniform continue to enjoy unsurpassed technological advantages. As a person who has strapped on body armor and carried a loaded weapon in a warzone, I take this very seriously. The data is overwhelmingly consistent: we get better acquisition outcomes –programmatically and operationally – when we take a constrained approach.
That is what I mean when I say “constraints work.”
The question is how to build a culture that incentivizes constraint. The first step is to recognize that constraint is not a foreign concept. The armed forces are full of people who embrace constraints and take pride in doing the most when they have the least,
I had the privilege of leading one such team during my final year on active duty. There were six of us in uniform, along with a handful of civilian partners. Our $84M project was one of the smallest in our division – so constraints are relative. Outside experts said it should take seven years, but my predecessor wisely decided to do it in two years. Our first test flight was a month ahead of schedule, we flew twice as many tests as originally planned, and when the program ended I was able to go to my commander and report that we were $8M under budget.
This is not the typical outcome, but it is more common than you might think. If we want more projects to look like this – world-class technologies ahead of schedule and under budget – my suggestion is to seek, support, and celebrate these teams.
Take steps to find these high-performing innovators, and support them, and tell their stories. If prominent leaders tell the world “This is what right looks like, this is who we are when we are at our best,” that will help provide incentives for others to move in that direction as well.
The US military is fantastic at achieving its goals. Give us an objective, and we will do whatever it takes to satisfy that objective. Military innovators have proven we can deliver world-class capabilities ahead of schedule and under budget when that is the goal. But acquisition programs run into problems when that is not the goal, when concepts like speed and thrift are dismissed, viewed skeptically, or written off as impossible. Acquisition programs run into problems when big budgets are treated as signs of prestige, long timelines are treated as signs of strategic genius, and high degrees of complexity are treated as signs of sophistication.
We need to set better goals and incentivize the right things. If we are going to reform the acquisition system, we must take steps to emphasize and incentivize three things: speed, thrift, and simplicity. And we need leaders who will seek, support, and celebrate the teams who pursue these goals.
And we need to do these things for a very simple reason: constraints work.