Representative Mac Thornberry’s proposed H.R. 4741 bill, or the Acquisition Agility Act, was unveiled with the congressman’s staff stressing how it would improve transparency and accountability in defense acquisitions. The proposed bill would alter how the military implements modular open architectures, prototyping, reporting, and intellectual property rights. While there are parts of the bill that could be very beneficial for speeding acquisitions or maturing technology before use, the focus on requiring open architecture may actually extend acquisition timelines. The bill mandates these architectures to ameliorate an unknown future. But there is irony in this requirement because it is based on the assumption of an unknown future as well, and then mandates an inflexible approach.
The potential issue is that, if the bill is enacted, “a major defense acquisition program initiated after October 1, 2018, shall be designed and developed with a modular open system architecture to enable incremental development.” This pushback against producing large numbers of platforms that cannot easily be upgraded is because the Pentagon has focused on procuring exquisite systems that take decades to develop and make. If they are obsolete within a few years of being acquired, it makes sense to be able to upgrade them.
But while such architectures do allow easier upgrades and expand a platform’s relevance over time, it is not always the case that this is the fastest—or even best—approach for every program. Mass-produced platforms may be the best approach to a particular military challenge. Going through the process of certifying these platforms to open architecture may simply delay development and procurement. If the Department of Defense pursues its innovation strategy and integrates technologies like additive manufacturing, prototyping, automation, and specialized computing, it may be able to produce such large-scale platforms quickly and relatively cheaply. In these cases, the requirement to certify modular and open architecture would become obstacles.
On the other hand, there may equally be situations in which incremental development may not be the best approach given the complexity of the system. There are situations in which one small change to a system requires further changes throughout the whole platform. Changes to parts of a stealth platform, for example, may require wider redesigns in terms of placement of equipment, heat dissipation, and electromagnetic signatures. Addressing such issues upfront to make sure that any upgrades do not create flaws in the system, and may even rest only on educated guesses about what the future holds, may lead to an extended development timeline. In these cases, focusing on shortening the time from experimental development to production is more useful than modularity.
The point is not to argue that module open architecture cannot be useful. It certainly can be. The point is that the requirement to make every major defense acquisition program, or even the vast majority of programs, rely on such architecture makes assumptions about the future that may not prove true.
There may be some room in the proposed bill for exceptions, depending on how one reads ‘if available and suitable,’ but the added burden of having to demonstrate how the program was tested for modular open architectures may incentivize the services to choose platforms that adhere to the requirements, rather than the best ones for the task.
Some programs will need easily upgradable structures, some may need very specific and unalterable structures, and others may need a combination. Congress should not attempt to legislate the ‘best’ approach, but rather incentivize the services to internally consider as many options as possible. Congress should consider legislation that returns authority to the services and accountability for the decisions they make.