The Blog

Initiatives to improve Air Force acquisition

5/18/2015 – LEXINGTON, Mass.  — Addressing a standing-room-only audience of industry and government employees here May 13, the Air Force’s Service Acquisition Executive spoke about acquisition priorities, challenges and initiatives.

Dr. William LaPlante, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, emphasized his top priorities: “big” projects, consisting of the F-35, the KC-46A and the Long Range Strike Bomber; transparency and bending the cost curve; owning the technical baseline; Better Buying Power 3.0; and strategic agility.

The speech came during a visit to nearby Hanscom AFB, Mass., which also included stops at MITRE and MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory, where he attended the Air Vehicle Survivability Workshop.

Speaking on acquisition and transparency, he mentioned it’s often hard to let go of preconceived notions.

“The hardest thing is not to get new thoughts into people’s minds, but to get old thoughts out,” LaPlante said.

Two years into the job, he said people still think the Air Force takes fighter pilots and makes them program managers. However, the average acquisition career program manager has 19 years of experience and program executive officers usually even more.

In addition, cost and schedule overruns are often exaggerated. He said that, adjusting for inflation, overall program costs have declined for the past three years. Schedules are still a challenge for development programs, but that is often due to issues with software or systems engineering.

He mentioned Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh’s bending the cost curve efforts to drive down weapons system costs. He also recognized the Air Force’s efforts working with industry organizations such as the National Defense Industrial Association and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association to look at small sets of projects and initiatives.

One effort is using other transactional authority, which allows flexibility in the contracting process, reducing contract award time.

The Air Force will host Plugfest Plus June 8 at Langley AFB, Va., using the Distributed Common Ground System as an open systems architecture. Various information technology companies will work as a consortium to provide specific problem-solving regarding the system via the Hanscom milCloud system. The upcoming event allows interested companies to “plug in” their systems to an open architecture and demonstrate their best system applications. Afterward, using OTA, the goal will be to get the best options on contract within a week or two, allowing companies an opportunity to build prototypes.

“We’re experimenting with these kinds of things because, as we set up the open architectures, we want quick ways to get people to bring their algorithm or application in and not wade through the laborious process,” LaPlante said.

Throughout his presentation, the SAE continually highlighted the necessity of open systems architecture and open mission systems.

“If there’s one thing you take away today, it’s open systems,” he said. “We’re doing it – program by program.”

Other initiatives address acquisition challenges, intellectual property, “out-of-the-box” experiments, meaningful discussions during source selections and foreign military sale challenges.

LaPlante also addressed owning the technical baseline, recapturing what the Air Force used to do in the 1990s. It’s government program offices, in conjunction with their teams including personnel from Federally Funded Research and Development Centers and contractor support, being smart buyers. The program offices should have the integrated master schedule, know the design of the system and run performance models independent of the system.

When talking about complex systems, multiple places should look at performance, he said.

Using the Joint STARS recapitalization as an example, LaPlante said the program office should also understand how the system is working and being used today; items such as availability and operator complaints need to be understood as the program office works on the replacement.

Building to the future was something LaPlante focused on when addressing strategic agility. He said the Air Force is looking to reinvigorate developmental planning, and when that comes to acquisition, it means adaptability.

“You’ll have to plan for the fact that you will not know what our adversaries or technology will do,” he said. “And that the warfighter will find a way to use [the system] in a way you never thought of, so you need to build in open architectures and allow for pivot points.”

The event was sponsored by the Lexington-Concord chapter of AFCEA. During his time at Hanscom, LaPlante met with the Battle Management and C3I and Networks PEOs and received numerous program manager updates.