More Reality Checks Could Help Keep DOD Programs on Time and Budget, GAO Says

The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle undergoes testing at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, in June 2021.

The Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle undergoes testing at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, in June 2021. U.S. Army / Mark Schauer

The Pentagon has long espoused “knowledge-based acquisition,” but doesn’t insist on it.

Is the lack of reality checks making Defense Department weapons programs cost too much and take too long? A new report released on Wednesday from the Government Accountability Office suggests so. 

The report looked at how often and how well Pentagon officials who design and execute arms programs use knowledge-based acquisition processes—essentially, a set of steps to make sure that program managers’ expectations are in line with reality and that they aren’t fooling themselves (and potentially the whole Department) about how costly and complicated certain things will be to make. 

Those practices include things like using analysis to gauge the current state of technology before starting a program that uses new or emerging technologies, identifying gaps between requirements and resources, and basically establishing key points in the process, called knowledge points, by which certain things should be known before continuing on to the next phase. 

GAO has previously found that using knowledge practices, such as completing a preliminary design review before launching a new project, can save 36 percent on growth in cost and 31 percent in growth in schedule. Indeed, the Pentagon itself has endorsed these practices for at least two decades.

The problem is that the Defense Department makes only sporadic use of them. 

“We continue to find that many [major defense acquisition programs] missed opportunities at key acquisition milestones to make knowledge-based decisions that can lead to improved cost and schedule outcomes” and that “over half of 40 major defense acquisition programs did not implement key knowledge practices.” It’s one reason why more than half of the programs GAO looked at reported delays in reaching initial operational capability. 

With statistics like those, the decision to not make knowledge-based decisions seems indefensible. Unfortunately, humans in management positions typically fall into the trap of underestimating how long and how costly projects will be, a propensity common in high-functioning individuals that Nobel-prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman describes in his 2013 book Thinking Fast and Slow.

Like most GAO reports, this one includes a response from the Defense Department, but it does not address the office’s conclusions about the use of knowledge-based acquisition. Defense One has reached out to the Defense Department for comment. 

Building off previous work, the Government Accountability Office also “continued to find programs not fully implementing recommended cybersecurity practices, such as testing.”

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