Been there, done that: Beware the rush to failure

By March 11, 2019May 17th, 2019Army ALT Magazine, Commentary
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Flexibility in contracting and scheduling delivers capability to warfighter in the optimal time―not necessarily the shortest time.

by Robert F. Mortlock, Ph.D., Col., USA (Ret.)

“Schedule-driven programs usually fail,” a seasoned acquisition professional and mentor cautioned me as he prepared to retire after a long, successful program management career. I was an inexperienced but highly trained and motivated new acquisition professional working on the program schedule for an urgently needed warfighter capability to detect biological warfare agents.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the possible use of biological weapons on the battlefield was a real threat, driving the need for a biological standoff detection system. The warfighters needed the system as soon as possible, and my acquisition team planned a development, testing and procurement strategy that met the warfighter’s need on the battlefield. Despite the urgency, the desire for a responsive acquisition approach, and available resources and funding, the underlying laser technologies did not work reliably outside of a controlled laboratory environment. The program proceeded anyway, but languished in the “valley of death” and never led to a fielded, militarily useful product. The valley of death refers to the gap that often occurs between technologies that work in a controlled laboratory environment on a small scale in prototypes, and technologies that work for warfighters in a combat environment on a large scale in manufactured products. Even now, decades later, the technologies that might enable use of lasers to detect and identify biological agents at a distance can’t be relied on to alert Soldiers to potential danger.

The program was schedule-driven based on the urgency of need—the threat that biological agents would be used on the battlefields in the Middle East against American service members. But in the end, it failed to deliver the capability to the warfighter. No amount of money or demand could whip a not-ready-for-prime-time technology into shape (possibly in defiance of the laws of physics) to meet the need. The capability required more time for research and development, a hard pill to swallow for senior leaders in the past and today as the pressure mounts to fix the slow, unresponsive defense acquisition system.


Resources (i.e., funding) can also drive the need for a schedule-driven program. The program’s planned research, development, test and evaluation; procurement and operations and support funding (generally referred to as the colors of money); and the planning, programming, budgeting and execution system force each program, in fact, to be schedule-driven―incorporating an inherent risk for failure.

This is the dilemma facing program managers (PMs) and acquisition professionals: The pressure to close an urgent capability gap and plan the proper color of money continues at the same time that the push for acquisition reform intensifies. Go faster is the message that comes across loud and clear. Well, senior leaders, be careful what you ask for―it may be a rush to failure and unnecessarily increasing the risk of not delivering capability to warfighters.

Acquisition programs can go fast, as evidenced by the numerous successful rapid acquisition efforts over the last two decades to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, like the Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicle program. Given unlimited funding, a priority of effort and reliance on mature commercial technologies, the MRAP program is an acquisition success story―delivering capability to the warfighter in record time for an acquisition of this magnitude, over a $30 billion program.

In 2005, during my time in the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, I was a team member in numerous successful rapid (albeit lower dollar) acquisition efforts that delivered capability to warfighters within six months of identifying a requirement. On a much larger scale (on the order of hundreds of millions of dollars per year), as a colonel-level project manager, my project management office successfully ran the Army’s Rapid Fielding Initiative, which provided deploying Soldiers state-of-the-art individual clothing and equipment—first aid kits, ear plugs, flashlights, flame-resistant clothing—based on items available from the commercial marketplace.


However, the pressure to go faster within defense acquisition does not alter the fundamental principles of the PM’s triple constraint—cost, schedule and performance—which limits optimal solutions. Wanting a capability fast involves sacrificing performance and possibly accepting increased costs. Senior leaders fool themselves if they believe that things are somehow magically different with each reform initiative. My wife reminds me of this frequently: “Just saying it more emphatically won’t make it come true.”

Recent acquisition reform initiatives have emphasized the value of prototyping, experimentation, commercial technology, incentives for innovative, partnering with nontraditional defense contractors, and faster contracting approaches. These initiatives can and do have a positive impact for acquisition professionals. Although far from original (each of these practices has been around for decades), focusing on them allows PMs to use these tools more routinely and innovatively with less need for justification. Prototyping and experimentation enable the acquisition enterprise to mature technology, as well as refine requirements and concepts of employment. This enables the delivery of limited capability to the warfighter as early as possible and sets up future programs of record for long-term success because the requirements, technology and funding are on firm footing.


Unfortunately, new initiatives often come with unintended pressure for PMs and often counterproductively limit flexibility and constrain empowerment. As outlined in “DOD Directive 5000.01, The Defense Acquisition System,” PMs need the flexibility to tailor acquisition strategies appropriately depending on urgency of need, technology maturity and availability of resources and funding. An important element of the acquisition strategy is the contracting approach―the selection of the proper contract process and type.

For example, after the cancellation of the Army’s Future Combat Systems in 2009, the Army began the Ground Combat Vehicle program and awarded firm-fixed-price research and development (R&D) contracts to BAE Systems and General Dynamics for designs and prototypes. The new vehicle’s requirements called for a heavy reliance on mature technologies. Firm requirements, commercial technologies and BBP pressure all equated to firm-fixed-price R&D contracts.

However, the government underestimated the difficulty of integrating the components to achieve the desired requirements. The result was the program’s cancellation in 2014 after spending nearly $1.2 billion for designs, with no prototypes delivered and no capability fielded to warfighters. The inappropriate choice of contract type for the program contributed to higher than necessary program risk. In retrospect, a cost-reimbursement contract would have been more appropriate to advance the state of the technology, but the pressure to act in accordance with the BBP initiative was too intense to overcome.

Program managers felt similar pressure to use fixed-price R&D contracts for the Army’s Soldier Protection System. The system consisted of five coordinated efforts to update Soldiers’ equipment, including helmets, ballistic vests, hard armor plates, combat eyewear and an integrated Soldier sensor system. It was the first time the Army attempted to coordinate the improvements in protective equipment so that the systems would be fully integrated―resulting in a modular, scalable, mission-tailorable warfighter capability and achieving a 10 percent reduction in weight.

Each of the five components resulted in the award of up to three competing firm-fixed-price contracts for the delivery of prototypes for testing, demonstration and user field trials. What were the results? The helmet, ballistic vest and hard armor plate efforts each failed to produce products that satisfied the capability the warfighter needed―meeting the minimum ballistic protection requirements with the desired weight savings.

The updated combat eyewear, featuring a lens that could transition from light to dark within a second, could not withstand Soldier field trials―they were fragile and broke too easily. The integrated Soldier sensor system also failed user testing―there were too many wires, and it was too complex for Soldiers to operate. For each of these efforts, the contractors delivered prototypes for testing in accordance with the contract requirements. In each case, the individual technologies within each system were mature. However, when these mature technologies were integrated into a military product and operated by Soldiers in a realistic combat environment, the system was deemed operationally unsuitable―not ready for prime time.

Cost-reimbursable contracts might have created incentives for the contractors to make progress in “ruggedizing” a militarily useful product, rather than incentivizing scheduled delivery for payment.


A poor plan executed vigorously is better than a good plan executed poorly: It’s a very common theme in operational warfighting units. But does it really apply to defense acquisition? In defense acquisition, a poor plan vigorously executed equates to no capability delivery and wasted resources. Similarly, a poorly executed good plan equates to the same. What we need in defense acquisition is good planning and vigorous execution.

A good plan incorporates lessons learned, has flexible on- and off-ramps and delivers capability to the warfighter using an incremental development and procurement approach. The recent acquisition reform initiatives emphasizing the use of other transaction authority (OTA) are a step in the right direction for streamlining acquisition efforts. Contracts based on the Federal Acquisition Regulation remain a barrier to entry into defense contracts for many of today’s most innovative and technologically savvy firms. It is critical to leverage OTA to break down those barriers to entry.

However, OTAs are simply vehicles to speed up the contracting process―ways to avoid cost accounting standards, earned value reporting and the mandatory use of small, disadvantaged, minority-owned and veteran-owned businesses. OTAs avoid these national policy objectives that are part of the FAR.

But speed to contract award should not be the goal―the goal is speed to deliver warfighter capability.


Acquisition reform initiatives continue to make a difference, many resulting in delivering capability to the warfighter as quickly as possible. The key to success in acquisition reform is empowering PMs to tailor acquisition strategies based on the urgency of need, technology maturity and available resources.

Just going fast―or increasing the speed of the program―is not the answer. Speed often increases risk in acquisition, resulting in a higher percentage of failed efforts. Speed to contract award, for example through an OTA, has little correlation to fielding militarily useful and suitable products to the warfighter quickly―in fact, it may have the opposite effect. Selecting the proper contracting type and approach results in improved operational warfighter capability in the optimal time, balancing cost, schedule and performance.

A commitment to the education and training of acquisition professionals, as well as the follow-on empowerment of these professionals to do their jobs, promises the best return on investment in helping to speed up defense acquisition. Continued training and education as well as leader development will help solidify the bonds of mutual trust and respect between the acquisition and warfighter communities.

For more information, contact the author at

ROBERT F. MORTLOCK, PH.D., COL., USA (Ret.), managed defense systems development and acquisition efforts for the last 15 of his 27 years in the U.S. Army, culminating in his assignment as the project manager for Soldier Protection and Individual Equipment in the Program Executive Office for Soldier. He retired in September 2015 and now teaches defense acquisition and program management in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, an MBA from Webster University, an M.S. in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Lehigh University. He is also a recent graduate from the Post-Doctoral Bridge Program of the University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business, with a management specialization. He holds DAWIA Level III certifications in program management, test & evaluation (T&E), and systems planning, research, development & engineering.


Related Links

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This article is published in the April-May 2019 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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