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Air Force struggles to develop acquisition talent

Feb. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
DOD's acquisition system 'doesn't encourage success,' says USAF Lt. Gen. Charles Davis.
DOD's acquisition system 'doesn't encourage success,' says USAF Lt. Gen. Charles Davis. (Air Force)

Building out capabilities to manage large information technology projects has been a sore spot for the Air Force.

Specifically, the service has been challenged with developing IT acquisition talent among its ranks, adopting and maintaining processes that foster best practices and aligning acquisition and cybersecurity strategies.

The Air Force is short on skills related to IT management and architecture and IT networks in general, said Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the military deputy in the office of the secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. Grooming engineers and program mangers that are savvy in systems engineering and attracting the right talent is critical “because we’re not going to succeed without it.”

“We’re failing at some areas right now because we don’t have that talent,” said Davis, who spoke at an AFCEA event Tuesday in northern Virginia.

Davis recalled his entrance into the IT acquisition world back in 2011. He was a two-star program executive officer running Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence and Networks, “and have never touched anything like that to any degree in my entire career,” Davis said of his prior experience with IT acquisition.

“Now, I was all of a sudden the person having to try to adjudicate the decisions that were trying to evolve in some very complicated systems from command and control to networks,” he said, adding that he was able to rely on past experiences. “So much of our acquisition talent that we have on these programs get brought in like that.”

While there are highly motivated people managing multibillion dollar IT programs, there isn’t enough acquisition talent being developed in-house, he said.

Managing large IT projects under the Defense Department’s acquisition system hasn‘t made matters any better.

“I wont say it forces failure, but it certainly doesn’t encourage success by the way we do things, especially related to IT,” Davis said.

The Air Force has also applied multiple different acquisition strategies to its major IT programs, including business case analysis models and others. DoD’s deputy chief management officer had been the milestone decision authority for many of the service’s programs, but that responsibility recently transitioned back to the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

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The milestone decision authority is responsible for deciding whether a program meets the milestone criteria and can continue to the next phase of the acquisition process, according to a Congressional Research Service report on DoD acquisition.

Every time a major program is subject to different processes, there have been challenges, Davis said. That has been the root cause of some prominent failures, and it continues to challenge program managers who must figure out which documents to use, which processes to follow and who makes final decisions.

There are so many players involved and different people who can influence and write policy, he said. In the business world an empowered CEO empowers his chief information officer and even that has its challenges.

“Imagine when we do it,” Davis said.

He challenged industry to be more honest and direct with the government. “Tell us when architectures won’t survive...when processes have not been thought out,” or when there is too much customization.

IT governance

To better manage IT resources, the Air Force created an IT governance executive board chaired by its chief information officer, Lt. Gen. Michael Basla.

Members of the executive board include the deputy chief management officer, the acquisition chief, chief operator, financial management and Air Force Space Command, which is responsible for operating the networks on which many of the service’s capabilities will run.

Basla said his office is reviewing all major functional applications. “We are saying you don’t have to develop and acquire your own infrastructure, [and] these are the standards you have to make sure your program follows,” Basla said following Tuesday’s panel discussion.

Some of the funding for specific programs will be used to sustain the joint infrastructure where those applications will be housed, Basla said. He has also said his role entails providing strategic vision for IT investments, including funding, acquisition and requirements, as well as strategic direction for the cyber domain. This will ensure the Air Force aligns its investments with the DoD’s Joint Information Environment (JIE) initiative.

Basla oversees about $3.5 billion of the Air Force’s IT spending.

He stressed that the Air Force is going to JIE. The challenge, however, is finding the right on-ramps to using JIE capabilities.

“We have been in the process of modernizing and consolidating within each of the services,” Basla said. “Now, as we move to the Joint Information [Environment] we have to find the right place, the right knee in the curve where we will leverage the work we have done and parlay that into the joint capability.”

Related: Air Force giving CIO more oversight over IT spending

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