Increasing the number of weapon systems with an open architecture backbone has long been a goal of the Defense Department, but House Armed Services Committee Chairman (HASC) Mac Thornberry’s (R-Texas) new round of acquisition reform legislation—which the Texas Republican plans on unveiling Tuesday at the Brookings Institute—will mandate that all future weapons systems conform to an open architecture, plug-and-play approach in the hopes of speeding up the integration of cutting-edge technologies, committee staff told Defense Daily.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee

Thornberry’s newest acquisition reform proposal centers around two goals. First, he wants to make the weapon’s buying process more agile, allowing new technologies to get to the battlefield at a quicker pace. Secondly, he wants to reduce cost growth by increasing accountability and addressing longstanding issues, according to a HASC staff member who previewed the legislation.

The HASC chairman plans to solicit feedback on the bill before incorporating pieces of it—and suggested changes—into the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.

“The approach is really to think about the acquisition system or weapons system differently,” the staff member said. “A weapons system is not one piece of equipment that gets fielded. It’s a collection of various components that each have different technology cycles associated with them, and those technology cycles should have different acquisitions and acquisition processes that support them.”

“The idea is to design weapons systems up front, recognizing that major components on that weapons systems are going to have to be upgraded numerous times over the life of that program, and to design that system around that concept to facilitate such upgrades.”

Thornberry’s proposed legislation draws a distinction between the platform, or major weapon system, and the components that comprise it. His proposal would allow the Pentagon to decide what qualifies as a component or a platform, however it will codify the department’s open architecture policy and require that all platforms take the form of a collection of upgradable components that are integrated together using an open, government-owned interface.

“Implementation of this policy is spotty within the department, so the chairman is focused on requiring open systems as a mechanism to create opportunities to deploy capabilities more quickly in the future,” the staff member said. “A weapons system platform is a truck, and what you strap onto that truck are the pieces that really provide capabilities to the warfighters. The more we can think about weapon systems in that kind of way, the more it lends itself to thinking about the acquisition process.”

To facilitate an environment where companies are continuously testing new technologies and quickly integrating them into weapon systems, Thornberry’s legislation would create a new prototyping process that allows the services to use funding that is not tied to a specific program to iterate new components. It also specifies that the service must provide a plan on how it will use those funds and then submit a report afterward.

“To the extent that the services find something that works, let’s buy it quickly and then field it into a weapon’s system much more quickly than we can do today,” the staff member said.

Currently, the budgeting process requires the services to specify two years in advance how it will such use funding, and often the military cannot predict that far in advance what technologies it may need, service officials told HASC in January.

Other portions of the legislation are meant to alleviate companies’ concerns about intellectual property (IP) rights. Under the proposed process of acquiring modular, open architecture weapons, the government will own all technical data associated with the open interfaces that allow the components to plug into the platform. The companies, however, will retain ownership of all components.

The reform proposal would change intellectual property law in two ways. When a product is developed with a mix of federal and private funds, the Defense Department and contractor will have to negotiate over the IP rights instead of the current “government-purpose” rights that allow some government use of data, which many contractors oppose, another HASC staff member said.

It also changes “deferred ordering” practices, which now allow the department to request IP at any time regardless of whether that was originally part of the contract. Thornberry’s legislation would limit the data that can be requested and specify the time period when the government can ask for it.

The draft makes several changes meant to improve the management of programs and increase accountability. It gives the defense secretary new authorities and responsibilities to set cost and schedule targets at Milestone A and then delegate later milestone decision authority to the services. This keeps the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), particularly the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, in an oversight role, while the services will be responsible for executing the program.

The draft also grants milestone decision authority for joint programs to the lead service assigned for that program, starting in Oct. 1, 2019. For instance, in the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle program, the Army will be responsible for keeping the vehicle on track, but if it decided to favor its own requirements over the Marine Corps’, the service could face consequences from OSD.

“The central thought process is one of holding people accountable for performing tasks well versus rebuilding a redundant bureaucracy to perform the functions of people who don’t do well,” a HASC staff member said. “If the Marine Corps has specific requirements, and the Army as executive agent doesn’t meet those requirements, what’s the answer? Is the answer to rebuild a different group of people to do that function that the Army should have been doing in the first place, or is it to hold the Army accountable for the tasks that have been assigned to them?”

To give OSD and the Joint Staff more visibility into weapons programs, the draft legislation creates an “acquisition scorecard” that synthesizes existing cost and risk assessments into a one- or two-page document. The scorecards would not require any additional reviews and would reflect the viewpoints of the services, the director of operational test and evaluation, the director of cost assessment and program evaluation (CAPE) and other parts of the Pentagon responsible for assessments.

The score sheets will be issued at Milestones A, B and C and detail cost, schedule, technical and manufacturing risk, depending on the program’s progress.