The Navy’s top weapons buyer is pushing to decentralize acquisition and procurement to the lowest possible level as part of an effort to better pivot between challenges.

James Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development & acquisition, said the Navy and Defense Department have been given two years of buffering of funding by Congress to help enact fundamental changes, in line with what Secretary of Defense James Mattis is pushing for. However, he said the fear is that in 2020 the Navy will look back and say even though it had extra resources and leadership’s attention, the same acquisition process kept happening with 10-15 year process timelines.

James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN (RD&A)). (Photo: U.S. Navy)
James Geurts, Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition (ASN (RD&A)). (Photo: U.S. Navy)

To change the overall Navy enterprise workforce’s ability to compete and win, the service needs to focus on four Ds: decentralize, differentiate, digitize, and develop, he said while giving the keynote at Defense Daily’s first Modular Open Systems Summit.

First among these, Geurts said, he is “massive decentralizing the way the Navy does acquisition and pushing authority and accountability back down to where it belongs, at the lowest capable level.” He has taken all of the category-two programs and that authority is now at the Program Executive Officer (PEO) level. PEOs are now looking at their programs and pushing category three and four programs down to the program manager level.

He favors this style because “if you’re not in charge of something at an early age you’re not going to really learn what it’s like to be in charge of something. And that’s an area where I can afford for you to learn and to perhaps fail. I don’t want you to learn the first time you’re leading a big A-Cat-1 program, alright?”

However, if someone does not make major acquisition decisions until they reach a higher level, they are not doing it until a mistake or bad decision could really hurt you. “So how do we push decision-making down? That’s what really gets agility into the system.”

Geurts also noted the importance of differentiation because there should be multiple methods to buy different items. There should be a process where a decisionmaker can use different tools when buying an aircraft carrier versus a new artificial intelligence (AI) algorithm that can help lean out a logistics system.

Then the differentiated tools can be combined with decentralization, letting decisionmakers at the lowest levels choose the right tools for the job in a sort of portfolio approach. One approach can be used for a platform, another for combat systems, and another to add capabilities to that combat system, Geurts said.

Next up is digitization, not just in terms of paperwork for Geurts but ranging from how the Navy employs digital tools to doing what traditionary counts as bending metal to fighting and winning a digital war.

While there are many uses for AI, Geurts said most people focus on its applicability to intelligence, such as the difficulty in finding a bad actor.

On the contrary, “I think one of the most immediate benefits of AI, if we can harness it and open systems, is to simplify things,” he said.

Geurts underscored the Defense Department is in love with technology and fielding things of increasing technology. The department adds five percent of capability but also 25 percent more complexity with it and over time builds up very complex systems that are hard to train for. AI can be used to help simplify those factors and accelerate training, Geurts said.

He used the example of a student pilot getting their first several thousand flights in a few weeks through AI and virtual reality tools before they perfect their skills in an actual cockpit.

Geurts also said whereas many people think of open systems as just software and AI, some of his biggest data and open system needs are for aircraft avionics and readiness. This means how to enable different people to look at the data about certain airplanes and perhaps come up with better predictive algorithms and better understanding parts flow and logistics outflow.

“But frankly, how do you look at open systems in ship design? Fifteen percent of our shipbuilding labor is less than five years experience. Ok, so we can wait 25 years until they have 30 years experience or we can use digital tools and new ways of thinking to hyper accelerate their learning,” so after five years a shipbuilder has the skill level with background data and other support that someone would not normally have until 25-30 years of experience.

The final factor is developing and attracting talent ranging from elementary school with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) learning through adulthood. Geurts said classification in the defense world is very important but can also be an inhibitor when topics are overclassified.

“Most of our problems are not classified, how we solve them might be.” Geurts said when he was an acquisition executive at special operations command (SOCOM) he learned that if big problems were raised to a much larger group of more diverse people, they got many more ideas and solutions. Adding that talent into the system increases acquisition speed. He suggested the Navy work more toward that perspective.

Geurts said these factors overall feed back into building a team that can be flexible and move faster than the enemy to pivot and find acquisitions solutions as problems present themselves. He said shrinking the time needed to find the right solutions will save money, deliver a better product, and then can be iterated much more rapidly than spending a larger chunk of money developing a “big bang” product that becomes irrelevant in the field.