Defense acquisition reform is critical going forward

Defense acquisition reform is critical going forward
© Getty Images

In his Message to the Force on March 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBiden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles Overnight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine MORE identified his top three priorities to securing the homeland. The second priority is to develop the workforce and equip them with the skillsets to face existing and emerging threats. While hard skills such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity hacks, and the ability to operate next generation weapon systems are critical to the mission, it is equally paramount that cultural change and adaptation are embedded into policy and concepts of operations. The Pentagon, specifically defense acquisition, is hobbled by a self-inflicted risk-averse culture that is often driven more by compliance to regulations than achieving mission outcomes.

In the past two decades, there have been many successful initiatives to create new contracting vehicles and private-public partnerships. From the establishment of the Defense Innovation Unit to newly minted Joint Special Operations Command innovation officers to the establishment of AFWERX, these initiatives have spurred pilots and testing beds where innovative contractors work closely and in conjunction with government customers and end users. In the past year, the use of Other Transaction Authorities (OTAs) has grown 70 percent, although OTAs are still just a small percentage of broader contracting spending. One main factor, as noted by the most recent MITRE study, is cultural maladjustment, rather than just a lack of tools available to acquisition professionals.

To get the most out of the acquisition workforce, three elements of culture change need to be addressed: 1) more education of new acquisition pathways and emerging capabilities, 2) shifting the mindset to “What can I do?” from “What can’t I do?” in achieving mission outcome; and 3) empowering the acquisition workforce to decide and move faster.


First, we need to better educate defense acquisition workforce on all the tools at their disposal, including OTAs, new acquisition pathways, and emerging technology capabilities. But we also need to embed innovation thinking models, such as human-centered design methodology, into the formal curriculum. While OTAs have been used as initial testing beds and pilots, the current workforce struggles in transitioning successful projects to full traditional contracts. A significant percentage of the acquisition workforce has only vague knowledge of OTAs, much less having experience using them. Moreover, new acquisition processes, such as the transformation from the 5000-series model to the new Adaptive Acquisition Process spearheaded by Undersecretary Ellen Lord, require basic understanding of emerging capabilities, such as DevSecOps lifecycle, and topical focus areas, such as artificial intelligence, in order to make technical decisions. These new knowledge areas need to be added to the existing curriculum.

In addition to the hard knowledge the defense acquisition workforce will need to maintain, we also need to educate them on innovation thinking and how it can be integrated into their existing workflows. While Defense Acquisition University has already started courses on innovation and agile management and is hosting events such as TEDxDAU to foster innovation and creativity, such stand-alone events and modules/classes are not enough. New methodologies and creative ways of tackling a problem need to be embedded into the mandatory requirement for Level I contracting officers.

Second, for defense acquisition reforms to truly be effective, the workforce should be incentivized to ask  "What can I do?" rather than "What can't I do?" to achieve the mission objective. Often times, the workforce is so bogged down by regulations, certifications, and the fear that they will inevitably violate some policy or regulation — or trigger a bid protest — that they slow down the process to ensure that everything is by the book. This has led to an inertia in the acquisition process of the very capabilities required by the warfighters. The paradigm shift is to empower them rather than letting fear take control.

Changing the mindset from risk-averse to at least risk-tolerant is the third cultural change that needs to be addressed. Specifically, defense acquisition professionals need to feel that what they do matters. They need to believe that what they are doing is critical to the mission and they need to be empowered to make decisions. Defense acquisition professionals are often neglected in comparison to their policy or operational counterparts. In fact, they are equally important in ensuring force readiness, as they are responsible for the exact capabilities that their counterparts need to carry out their objectives. The informal pejorative but widespread attitude of “no one joins the military to become a contracting officer” needs to fundamentally change so that they feel valued — not only by their higher-ups but also by their peers — that they are an important part of a bigger team.

More than simply having the right tools and processes to keep on pace with rapid technological advances, defense acquisition reforms can only be effective when the workforce is sufficiently educated and is surrounded by an empowering culture that rewards mission outcomes rather than regulation compliance. Change starts with the people first and foremost. Defense acquisition reform is not any different.

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct the acronym "Other Transaction Authorities."

Evanna Hu is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Additionally, she is the CEO and partner of Omelas, an artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning company working on mapping the online information environment. She is a subject matter expert in messaging and propaganda of countering violent extremism (CVE) and counterterrorism (CT) in both Salafi-jihadism and neo-Nazism and has worked at the intersection of governance, security, and technology in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, including extensive time in Kenya, Iraq, the Gaza Strip, Syria, Tunisia, and Afghanistan. Prior to Omelas, she successfully founded two technology ventures, one based in Nairobi, Kenya, and another in Amman, Jordan. To date, she has briefed six national heads of intelligence and has advised 12 cabinet or ministerial members on technology and security. At the Atlantic Council, she specializes in emerging technologies for NATO and member countries with a focus on AI and 5G.