4 lessons in rapid acquisition learned from DOD's new ATVs

DOD's purchase of all-terrain vehicles reinforces lessons about buying quickly and offers insights for improving rapid acquisitions, experts say.

The urgent purchase of 16,000 armored all-terrain vehicles in 2007 was motivated by a desire to protect U.S. troops and prevent more casualties. But procurement experts say it could provide Defense Department officials with a template for making rapid acquisitions — if DOD sticks to some tried and true purchasing principles.

At the time of the purchase, DOD's goal was to get the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan as quickly as possible.

However, DOD's strategy could apply to many situations in which the department needs to buy systems quickly, procurement experts told the House Armed Services Committee’s Defense Acquisition Reform panel on Oct. 8.

Four tactics in particular might be useful in other situations, they said:

  • Agree on a plan and stick to it. At the start of a rapid acquisition, officials must assess the immediate need and determine minimum requirements for the project, said Thomas Dee, director of the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell at the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.

After officials have agreed on those requirements, they should not interrupt the acquisition and production processes to make changes, Dee said.

  • Stay with the familiar. At the outset of the MRAP program, DOD officials decided to use only proven technologies instead of testing new ones. They also kept requirements to a minimum with a strict policy of senior-level approval for any changes.

“That kept us from having to deal with requirements creep — with all the good ideas that people want to add later on — and allowed us to move forward very quickly,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Brogan, commander of the Marine Corps Systems Command.

  • Require bidders to show their work. DOD’s competition was full and open, but only road-ready contractors made the first cut. That is because DOD officials required vendors to bring in their vehicles and demonstrate their solutions, which weeded out the companies that had only plans, Brogan said.
  • Relieve vendors of some of the work, if possible. Officials made the government responsible for adding the final pieces of equipment, such as radios, to the vehicles after they were bought rather than putting those tasks on the contractor’s to-do list. That shortcut helped get the vehicles to the battlefield more quickly, said Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.

Of course, in some ways, the MRAP procurement was a special case that made it easy to justify a different approach. First and foremost, lives were at stake. DOD was racing to respond to casualties caused by improvised explosive devices, which have accounted for as much as 75 percent of U.S. combat casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To date, about $22.7 billion has been appropriated for the procurement of more than 16,000 MRAP vehicles, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has said MRAP is DOD’s most important acquisition program.

The MRAP program followed a documented acquisition process, guided by DOD acquisition rules, Dee said.

Beyond the quick deal

Despite the success of the rapid approach in certain situations, DOD needs to invest more time and money in helping develop new technologies that could deal with future requirements, experts say.

The basis for accelerating the use of new technologies “is a robust research and development structure,” Dee said.

Sullivan agreed, saying DOD officials avoid working with immature technologies when they should be encouraging companies to develop vibrant and relevant solutions. DOD hasn’t done that in recent years, and as a result, it has had to include underdeveloped technology in acquisitions, which can inflate costs, he added.

If DOD were to make technology development a priority, “it could be a game changer in the acquisition process,” Sullivan said.

Meanwhile, acquisition changes are in the works. The House's defense panel will present a report to the full Armed Services Committee with recommendations for reforming DOD’s acquisition processes. Lawmakers will consider the recommendations for inclusion in DOD’s fiscal 2011 budget authorization legislation.

Panel Chairman Rep. Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) said the report will address improvements to the rapid acquisition process, including how to define urgency so officials can determine whether to use a special approach. The report will also discuss whether the MRAP approach can apply to traditional acquisitions.

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