Document Type

Symposia Article


Many aspects of war and national defense appear to run in cycles. Indeed, the identification and explanation of these cycles is a favorite pastime of military scholars. Historians and political scientists characterize war as alternating cycles of offensive and defensive dominance. The idea of cyclicality may in fact be hardwired into academic discussions and understandings of war. For example, early war theorist Carl von Clausewitz described an ever-changing character of war undergirded by war’s fundamentally unchanging nature. Because the dominant theoretical understanding of war is that it holds a mixture of both fixed and constantly evolving elements, our concept of war may inherently lend itself to the idea of cycles. At the same time, however, the identification of cycles in war and national defense can be seen empirically. For example, the United States defense budget since World War II is notoriously cyclical, running through peaks and troughs in constant dollar terms roughly every fifteen to twenty years. Since peak defense funding periods do not always align with periods of war, it is not the dynamics of war alone that drive cyclical United States defense budgets but a mix of phenomena that includes economic cycles. Hence, in noting the cyclical nature of many aspects of defense, historians must further investigate to determine what dynamics and constraints may be at play in driving the cycle.

While commercial technology continues as a driver of acquisition speed, especially for IT; the decentralization of acquisition decision- making and the delegation of decision authority to the military de- partments will likely encourage different priority balances to emerge in different sectors of the acquisition system.

The delegation of acquisition authority to the United States Army has resulted in a significant internal reorganization of its acquisition functions. The Army is, for the first time, establishing a command focused on bringing together the wide variety of acquisition stake- holders in one structure, the Army Futures Command. Army Futures Command will bring the system for deciding requirements for new capabilities together with the acquisition process. In effect, the Army consolidates acquisition responsibilities within the service more closely under the control of the Army Chief of Staff, to whom the commander of Army Futures Command will report. The Army Futures Command will pursue a new modernization strategy, built around six major priorities, and hopes to significantly accelerate the delivery of new capability. By centralizing responsibility for requirements setting and acquisition execution in one command, the Army hopes to reduce the friction (and timespan) of coordinating across the Army’s multiple major communities.

By contrast, the United States Air Force plans to extend its delegation of acquisition authority from OSD by redelegating this authority down to program executive officers and empowering program managers. This redelegation may reflect the relative maturity of the Air Force’s major programs, such as the KC-46 tanker and the B-21 bomber, where the high level strategic issues are decided (notably in both cases with cost control as the major priority), and the focus is on program execution. Matters of program execution are often best handled at the program level or as close to it as possible.

However, less mature parts of the Air Force acquisition portfolio, such as recent efforts to design new systems for command and control and systems de- signed to approach space as a warfighting domain, may use the same decentralized authority to achieve different objectives. Notably, Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper is using the prototyping authority granted by Congress to rapidly demonstrate critical high-performance technologies, such as hypersonic strike systems called for in the National Defense Strategy.

Decentralizing and distributing acquisition authority within military departments may lead to a variety of microcosms within the acquisition system where the balance of acquisition priorities is different. Other trends, however, will impact the acquisition system across its entire scope. Another major trend is the increasing functionality of weapon systems defined by software over hardware. The capability seen in the Air Force’s flight lines, in the Army’s motor pools, or in the Navy’s homeports is increasingly determined by lines of code rather than steel and aluminum.

This trend has major implications for the acquisition system because it presents challenges to its basic structure, which was originally de- signed around an industrial production model. Software-defined systems break down the boundaries around which many organizations and processes are organized. Software-based systems don’t graduate from development to production to sustainment like hardware-based systems, presenting challenges to government budgeting mechanisms that are leading to calls for new funding categories that can deal with the iterative nature of software development and production.

Consider the idea that a system which can send and receive electrons may serve many purposes, such as a communications device, a sensor, a weapon, and an electronic defense system. Software-based capabilities are steadily spreading, and they are a powerful reason why Under Secretary of Defense Ellen Lord appointed a special assistant, Jeff Boleng, for software acquisition. Boleng will “help oversee the development of software development policies and standards across DoD and offer advice on commercial software development best practices to Pentagon leadership . . . .” Perhaps the perfect embodiment of this trend towards software-driven capabilities is in artificial intelligence. How this trend will affect the balance of acquisition priorities in the future is difficult to predict, but one thing seems likely: change will remain dynamic rather than static, leading to continuous acquisition reform cycles for the years to come.



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