By Marina Malenic

Efforts by lawmakers to reform Defense Department acquisition, as well as internal department initiatives, seem to be taking hold in the early stages, key officials told a House Armed Services subcommittee yesterday.

“For the past several years, the department has been making changes to improve the acquisition process,” Nancy Spruill, the Pentagon’s director of acquisition resources and analysis, told the subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs. “The department strongly supports and is aggressively implementing congressional requirements and will continue to seek ways to improve and streamline acquisitions.”

In 2009, the Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed canceling or significantly curtailing hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapon programs that he characterized as too costly or no longer relevant for current operations. Congress supported several of those recommended terminations.

Earlier this month, Gates announced a major initiative to cut Pentagon waste and “change the way we do business” (Defense Daily, May 11).

At the same time, however, less than half of the department’s major acquisition programs are being developed in ways that “world-class” commercial companies do business, according to Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office.

“For 42 programs GAO assessed in depth in 2010, there has been continued improvement in the technology, design and manufacturing knowledge programs had at key points in the acquisition process,” he told lawmakers. “However, most programs are still proceeding with less knowledge than best practices suggest, putting them at higher risk for cost growth and schedule delays.”

Deputy Pentagon Comptroller John Roth, who also testified at the hearing, said stability in the military services’ requirements is essential to avoiding future cost growth. Still, a majority of programs assessed by GAO changed key systems requirements after development start. Of the 42 programs in the 2010 analysis that reported tracking requirements changes, 23 programs reported having had at least one change since development start.

A majority of programs have also experienced software development challenges, GAO has discovered. However, the Pentagon has begun to implement a revised acquisition policy and congressional reforms that address software, requirements and related areas.

“For example, eight programs we examined in the technology development phase plan to test competitive prototypes before starting system development and seven programs plan to hold early systems engineering reviews,” Sullivan explained. “If DoD consistently applies this policy…the outcomes for DoD programs should improve.”

The agency also found that more programs are beginning with higher levels of technology maturity, but they are not taking other steps, such as holding early systems engineering reviews, to ensure there is a match between requirements and resources. Since passage of the National Defense Authorization Act in 2006, there has been a significant increase in the percentage of technologies demonstrated in a relevant or realistic environment by the start of system development.

Further, programs are still not regularly testing production representative prototypes before committing to production. Of the 32 programs assessed by GAO that could have tested a prototype before production, only 17 either tested or expect to test a “fully configured, integrated, production-representative” prototype before holding their production decision.

In December 2008, DoD changed its policy to require programs to test production-representative articles before entering production, so that number is expected to go up.