Defense acquisition chief lays out hard-won lessons

WASHINGTON -- The outgoing undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics leaves office this week, and he’s leaving behind a road map for the future of defense acquisition.

Frank Kendall spoke yesterday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here about his new book, “Getting Defense Acquisition Right,” which is available in PDF form here.

The book contains, as Kendall wrote in its introduction, “some of the hard-won lessons of my decades of experience in the development of new defense products.”

“I’m not a believer in acquisition magic. … I think it’s all about hard work, attention to detail, and really knowing what you’re doing,” he said at CSIS.

Acquisition Cover to Cover

The book has six chapters, which Kendall outlined in some detail:

-- Getting policy right;

-- Building professionalism in the acquisition workforce;

-- Managing technical complexity;

-- Working with industry;

-- Responding to external forces and events; and

-- Measuring progress in improving acquisition.

The chapters contain articles Kendal wrote during his tenure in the Defense Department, plus emails, memorandums and other material.

“I think there’s still room for improvement in all areas of acquisition,” Kendall said. Acquisition improvement must “come from within,” he added, from people “in the trenches.”

“Dealing with industry, trying to get the incentives right, trying to get the performance right, trying to set up business deals and enforce them, set reasonable requirements in our contracts, do all the hundreds of things that are necessary to get good results – that’s where we’re going to improve,” he said. “It’s those day-to-day, hands-on things that thousands of people are doing every day.”

Emphasizing Professionalism, Expertise

Kendall emphasized that the people who make up the acquisition workforce are essential to sustaining improvement. Integrity, ethics, and the right skillset are all part of the professionalism defense acquisition requires, he said.

“You need to have expertise in the thing that you’re doing, or you’re not going to do well,” Kendall said. “We’ve worked very, very hard over the last few years to develop the acquisition workforce.”

Sustaining momentum in improving acquisition has been his theme for the past year, he said, along with “keep your sense of humor.”

“There is a lot of momentum right now, and as I read all of these program executive officer and program manager assessments of their programs, I am hearing back the things I want to hear,” Kendall said. “A lot of it is success stories about how people have implemented ‘should-cost,’ or they’ve implemented a better set of incentives for their contractor, or they’ve gotten competition where they’ve been sole-sourced for 10 years.”

The next administration should prioritize defense spending on research and development along with modernization, Kendall said.

“That’s where we really need the money,” he said. “We’ve got the ideas. … What we don’t have in our budget right now, in our budget request, is the money to take those demonstration [projects], and assuming the results are successful, go on to building products.”