NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. –-The military and defense contractors must find ways to speed the acquisition and fielding of new technologies so that gear is not obsolete by the time it reaches troops in combat, the senior uniformed leaders of the Navy and Marine Corps said May 16.

“I think we all want to go faster, cheaper, better,” Neller said. “As a customer, it just seems to be too slow. There may be good reasons for that, but we’ve got to go faster because we’re behind in many areas and we’ve got to get this new stuff in the hands of those that we have an obligation to support and make sure that they’re successful in whatever mission we give them.”

Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, Marine Corps Commandant. Photo: USMC.
Lt. Gen. Robert Neller, Marine Corps Commandant. Photo: USMC.

Neller made the remarks during a panel discussion at the annual Sea Air Space conference that also featured Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Paul Zukunft and Paul Jaenichen, administrator of the U.S. Maritime Administration.

It regularly takes a decade from the time a requirement is generated to the time a new technology that satisfied it is fielded. By that time, the technology is often obsolete. The military is challenged with fielding technology more quickly through a system rife with pitfalls and roadblocks like protests from losing bidders that throw a wrench in acquisition programs, he said.

“I understand that. It’s business and that is money and that’s what you do,” Neller said. “You’ve got to make money. You’ve got employees that you have an obligation to. But we’ve got a obligation to the men and women in our service to give them new gear as soon as we can, because the gear we have has been run really hard the last 15 years.”

A good starting point would be establishing realistic requirements for new weapon systems and inviting industry into the development process much earlier, CNO Richardson said. The sooner industry is consulted about a capability gap, the more likely commercial innovation will be able to solve the problem. Richardson said the acquisition system has “run amok,” regularly dispensing “monstrous documents” that are so specific and intricate that industry innovation is curtailed.

“What I’m trying enable is starting that conversation earlier in the process where we can open up the dialogue at, sort of, the problem-definition phase,” Richardson said. “What I’ve found is that oftentimes, the private sector, the industrial base … will be able to provide a solution that we have not foreseen.”

Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson, the 31st CNO. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird)
Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. John Richardson, the 31st CNO. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Nathan Laird)

Richardson and Neller agreed that the military and industry are symbiotic but that both should dispense with formalities and politeness in their dealings. Frank declaration to industry of the Navy’s needs should be met with concise, realistic assessment of potential technological solutions, they said. If the Navy enabled industry to do business more quickly, they must reciprocate with timely, affordable solutions.

“My sense is that our industrial partners are ready to move faster…if we would just enable that speed to happen,” Richardson said. “We have just got to streamline our processes.”

Richardson called for more “dynamic experimentation and prototyping earlier on” that will result in more affordable solutions “with more agility to meet the challenge that we have proposed.”

“By virtue of that experimentation and prototyping process, we will have more confidence that the tool we eventually place in the hands of our sailors and Marines, indeed all of our war fighters, will perform better and more reliably,” Richardson said.

Neller said speed of development should not come at the expense of performance reliability. He agreed that requirements documents have become too long and complex, but said industry must supply reliable products. In Marine fashion, he agreed with Richardson’s suggestion that formalities should be dropped during acquisition negotiations.

“Fair enough on the requirements document,” Neller responded. “Once we start cutting steel, it’s got to work. And we’ll have a conversation about that,” he said. “If we’re not happy, don’t worry about it, I’ll tell you. We’re in a partnership and we need each other, but the stuff has got to work. It has to be on time because, right now, the one thing we don’t have is a lot of time.”