There is renewed momentum on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon for the never-ending pursuit of reform in the defense acquisition system. This is good news because change — big, bold, transformative change — to the way the Department of Defense (DoD) buys products and services is more essential today than ever before. Smart technologies, like artificial intelligence (AI), can help the department respond to a dynamic threat environment, execute its missions, simplify acquisition, and value time.
The military’s workload is growing, as threats become more diverse, placing even greater constraints on already limited resources. Terrorism is an enduring problem. Russian aggression in Europe (and beyond) and Chinese assertiveness in the Pacific will undoubtedly continue. North Korea’s reckless pursuit and display of nuclear power threatens American bases and allies across the region, while cyber and space threats from state and nonstate actors are advancing rapidly. Responding to each requires drastically different capabilities and tools that must be quickly fielded.
Unfortunately, DoD’s acquisition system is anything but quick (much less responsive, cost-effective, pick your adjective). Cost overruns and schedule delays plague major weapons systems acquisition such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and littoral combat ships. Complex rules and processes muck-up even the simplest procurements and create headaches for acquisition professionals in DoD and across the defense industry. The list goes on.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act established a panel to help the Secretary of Defense and Congress introduce statutory and regulatory changes to defense acquisition. The panel, known as the Section 809 Panel, has a unique opportunity to introduce bold solutions to the defense acquisition system’s myriad problems and enable DOD to respond to a more dangerous world. Chair Deidre Lee recently testified to the House Oversight Committee. She emphasized the need to execute the mission, simplify acquisition, and value time. AI could help address these needs, and should be a central consideration to any acquisition reform strategy.
Mission execution across the DoD can benefit from smarter technologies. Consider, for instance, force reductions. Ongoing budget cuts required the Army to shrink its force to 450,000 people by the end of fiscal year 2018. Virtually every other organization within DoD is losing people, too. Regardless of whether DoD realizes current force reduction plans, AI would free-up personnel in acquisition and contracting roles (as well as other back-office functions across the organization). This approach would enable reallocation of personnel to warfighting and direct-support missions.
One of the biggest challenges the acquisition community faces is a lack of people to execute its mission. Simply put, the acquisition field is struggling to attract young professionals to succeed an aging workforce. Why? Because acquisition is boring. Contracting for or with the military is a tedious, slow-paced, frustrating, and often thankless line of work. Arming the workforce with the latest technology to speed up the process and keep pace with the rest of the world is no panacea. There are far more problems than just lack of technology when it comes to recruiting young people into government; however, if AI can be applied to increase efficiency and improve information flow, young people may feel more compelled to join the acquisition community.
The acquisition system also consistently fails in its mission to provide new, innovative capabilities to those in uniform in a timely, cost-effective manner. Just one of the reasons for this problem is that the DoD is not very attractive to nontraditional contractors. For example, start-ups offering cutting-edge capabilities often indicate there are no clear entry points into the defense market. Have no doubt that rising powers are aggressively pursuing talent and products in Silicon Valley, cutting into the U.S. military’s technological edge. AI can help the department win the race to new technologies by reducing barriers to entry and helping nontraditional defense contractors quickly connect with programs and relevant contract bidding opportunities. In fact, DoD explored this application as one aspect of an Air Force project using IBM’s Watson, yet DoD could implement such options on a much wider scale.
Complexity of the contracting processes and onerous auditing requirements dissuade companies from doing business with DoD. The department’s contract auditing regime often suffers from years-long backlog and is exceedingly intrusive and time consuming. In fact, it is so complicated, intrusive, and time consuming that many companies simply cannot afford to undergo the process, forcing them to opt out of doing business with DOD altogether. Intelligent systems can comb through massive amounts of data — financial reports, receipts, and so forth — facilitating the completion of audits and similar requirements.
AI maximizes the value of time, as well. Technologies like Amazon Alexa and Google Home can, within minutes, rapidly query data and generate detailed results and products that would take an individual or team dozens of hours. This is not to suggest humans won’t play a role in acquisition, but rather, AI can optimize the effect of every individual on the acquisition process.
If time is money in business, time means everything in military operations. Not only can AI reduce the time to complete acquisitions — a major benefit for defense contractors — AI can also improve the speed and effectiveness of acquisitions in deployed environments, far away from major headquarters. Smart appliances, like refrigerators, are saving people time (and making sure they don’t come home to an empty fridge after a long day at work). Vehicles can identify when they need new parts or servicing, and automatically trigger a procurement or schedule an appointment at your local dealership. Why can’t the same apply to making sure ground units never run thin on bullets or C-130 maintenance crews always have fittings and seals to prevent oil leaks, making sure troop and cargo movements aren’t disrupted? The F-35’s autonomic logistics information system is a step in the right direction. Taken a step further, AI coupled with autonomous capabilities throughout the military’s logistics system can expedite and improve the accuracy of materiel deliveries to operational units. AI is increasingly better than humans are at forecasting and managing logistical needs, and can save time for troops executing real-life missions. People have better things to do than fill out complex forms to buy routine necessities.
But then don’t we all?