ARLINGTON, Va. – Even within the regular acquisition system, the Navy expects that all of its program managers will find ways to shave time and money off their programs. Anything less is a failure of leadership, the principal military deputy for the Navy acquisition chief said at an engineering conference last week.
Much has been made in recent years of Congress giving the Navy new rapid acquisition authorities to speed along programs such as a carrier-based unmanned tanker, a large-displacement unmanned underwater vehicle and others.
But Vice Adm. Michael Moran, the top uniformed advisor to Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition James Geurts, said Thursday that even outside those special authorities “things can be done if we partner, if we trust, and if we have the folks leading our programs lead.”
“In the near term, Secretary Geurts can’t be more clear in his direction to the enterprise: lead. Stop being a victim; lead your program, knock down the barriers, and deliver the capability the fleet needs when and where they need it at a cost they can afford. Period,” he added later.
Moran offered several examples of program managers empowering their engineers and fighting to speed up weapons development to meet fleet needs.
He said the average acquisition program takes eight to 10 years to deliver, and the Next Generation Jammer’s mid-band capability was no exception. For the next iteration of NGJ, the low-band, the program office had a nine-year schedule laid out when they came in for a Milestone A review. Moran said Geurts made clear that the program could not take that long.
“Well, they just came back a couple months ago: it’s now a four- to five-year opportunity to deliver that capability that much sooner. No extra help, no extra coordination. Leadership,” Moran said.
Another example highlights the value of young and innovative employees and the ability to leverage new technologies such as additive manufacturing. The EA-18G Growlers today still use a legacy ALQ-99 pod that is 30 years old, somewhat obsolete and hard to maintain, Moran said. A young engineer at Point Mugu said a new antenna could quadruple the pod’s power output and make it much more effective against today’s threats. The engineer added that the antenna could be additively manufactured and said the risk was low because it was housed inside the pod and therefore couldn’t damage the aircraft if it were to unexpectedly fail.
After hearing the briefing, “the program looked at it and came back with a plan. And their plan was three years, $3.5 million. We’ll go ahead and investigate to see if that’s reality. Three years,” Moran said, calling that an unacceptable timeline.
“A couple folks challenged that, and in four months that antenna was fielded on an operational aircraft and flown in Red Flag. Four months. Additively manufactured. And it won Red Flag for its performance, because it knocked out [electronic warfare] systems. Four months.”
Moran added that the same young engineer then took that first success and went a step further.
“That same young engineer goes, you know what we can do with additive manufacturing? We can actually design an antenna for every mission and optimize its performance for the threat that that air wing is going to go after. That’s today. That’s not with anything new, that’s not with any organization change or any help; that’s leadership, listening and partnering across the force.”
“Those aren’t accelerated programs or anything formal, those are guys in the field making a difference,” Moran said.
“That’s what Secretary Geurts’ message is: hey listen, there’s things we need help with from Congress, from the organization, refocused priorities – yes, that all has to happen. But in the near term, we need our programs to lead. Partner with industry. What’s available, what’s mature, what can we field that will make a difference for our warfighters with what we have.”
In the case of the Growler pod, much of that time saved had to do with extensive test protocols that program offices usual create. They want to ensure the new item works in all environments, against all kinds of threats, and so on, and then conduct both developmental tests and operational tests. Moran said this thinking isn’t affordable and doesn’t meet operational commanders’ needs.
The vice admiral said the Navy acquisition community used to have a much closer relationship with the fleet and used fleet ships and planes to test new and evolving capabilities. That doesn’t happen as much anymore, with programs preferring extensive testing in more controlled environments first “because we don’t trust anybody, because we’ve got to go take it through the developmental cycle, through the operational test cycle, before we can trust that the fleet can actually use that system.”
Moran said the Navy is doing more to both give program managers more authority and also more accountability, but but he noted that too many people outside the program offices have the ability to slow down programs without any accountability, with the test community being one example.
He mentioned an unnamed program manager set to conduct a milestone review with the Navy this week, and before meeting with Moran and Geurts that program manager had 10 other briefings that week alone with other entities in the Navy that demanded their own pre-milestone decision brief.
“How is that program manager with his team executing the work we’re asking of them? Everybody thinks they deserve one-on-one time to be able to ask and get answered the questions they have. We’ve got to give that time back. So we really have to get back to trust,” he said.
As each program learns how to navigate this renewed push to move faster, eliminate redundant or non-useful steps in the development process, find new uses for existing technologies and more, Moran – who previously served as the program executive officer for tactical aircraft program – said communication among the program managers and the program executive officers is key.
“I’m kind of embarrassed to say this: we never got together as PEOs. There’s 16 to 19 of us, depending on how you count them – but we never got together on a periodic basis to really have this kind of conversation about what’s affecting each of our business sections. We get together once a month now with [Geurts]. We have this conversation. And we are passing it down to our program managers,” he told USNI News during a question and answer session.
“In my opinion, the only way you’re ever going to get over [resistance or hesitancy] is just to do it and share and show that we can do it. So those are examples that we are sharing across the board of things that are happening right now, today, with some program managers who are out there leading. And that’s our expectation. So it’s communication – robust, often – and then doing and sharing.”