Wednesday’s Book Review: “Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960-2009: An Elusive Goal”

defense-acquisition-reformDefense Acquisition Reform, 1960-2009: An Elusive Goal. By J. Ronald Fox, with contributions by David G. Allen, Thomas C. Lassman, Walton S. Moody, and Philip L. Shiman. Washington, D.C.: Center for Military History, United States Army, 2011.

Written by the dean acquisition policy experts, J. Ronald Fox—along with the critical assistance of David G. Allen, Thomas C. Lassman, Walton S. Moody, and Philip L. Shiman, historians working on the Defense Acquisition History Project who wrote the majority of chapters 2, 3, and 4—this study offers a broad overview of fifty years of historical study on this subject. It is a useful introduction to an important subject.

During the period discussed, 1960-2009, the authors outline more than 27 major studies of defense acquisition undertaken at the behest of various presidents, congressional committees, officials in government agencies, and a host of think tanks, universities, and other organizations. The authors note the similarity of findings and recommendations emerging over all this time. Despite the disparate analysts and the specific time and circumstances in which these studies were conducted, all wrestle with the related conundrums of cost, schedule, and quality. The old adage is, pick two but you cannot have all three of these major drivers to effective fielding of new weapons systems.

In every case, recommendations for change have either been ignored or imperfectly implemented; or if implemented largely failing in their intended result. There are forces opposing any change whatsoever, of course, but regardless of whatever reforms might be undertaken the issues of failure to meet schedules, control costs, and ensure technical performance have remained. I am reminded of the famous quote from Niccolò Machiavelli in The Prince: “It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries” (The Modern Library, Random House, Inc., 1950, Page 21, Chapter VI).

Is defense acquisition reform a lost cause? Fox does not believe so, and his conclusion argues for several additional reforms. He notes that the organizational culture present within the Department of Defense acquisition community has established barriers to reform efforts and this is the first task to be overcome. Nothing, however, is more difficult than changing an organizational culture. While reform attempts have produced positive but limited improvements they have not changed the basic culture driving the behavior of the participants in the acquisition process.

Fox argues: “Future attempts to correct the persistent and costly problems of defense acquisition must include more effective follow-up by senior and mid-level government managers who must understand and agree with the changes that need to be made. Today’s practice of reassigning military acquisition managers, at most levels every two or three years on acquisition programs that require ten years or more to complete, is unlikely to produce lasting improvements in managing those programs. The instruments of change must be a strong secretary of defense and senior acquisition executives chosen for industrial experience, with expert knowledge and skills in defense acquisition, who understand why acquisition reform efforts of the past have failed to achieve lasting improvements, and who have strong commitments to achieving efficient as well as effective acquisition program outcomes” (p. 207).

Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960-2009: An Elusive Goal is a breathless survey of an important, but often mind-numbing subject. It is perennial in so many ways. For example, recently president-elect Trump called for the cancellation of the F-35 fighter program, a weapon system that has had its share of troubles to be sure, all of them related to cost, schedule, and performance. Once again, pick two, or so it seems. This book helps illuminate many of the longstanding issues that the defense acquisition community, the vast majority of whom are dedicated public servants trying to accomplish a significant but difficult task, have had to deal with over the years. It may profitably be read by all those engaged in these activities, as well as historians and others seeking to understand the challenges of defense acquisition.

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2 Responses to Wednesday’s Book Review: “Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960-2009: An Elusive Goal”

  1. Damara Arrowood says:

    Thankfully there’s a free and secure PDF available online. These studies in book form can get kinda pricey! Most likely being that folks from Boeing, Lockheed, Grumman, etc have a budget for this type of info whereas nonprofits and startups rarely do (and newcomers absolutely need to be factored into that equation if reform truly is the goal).

    Thanks for shedding some light on this. It looks as if reforms in this area are going to be mandatory for the foreseeable future. Hopefully this will give us some basis for comparison to help effectively plan out the next 40-50 years, regardless of what may come politically within the next four.

    Link to the free PDF:


  2. Damara Arrowood says:

    It is too bad the cutoff point of the study was 2009. I was very impressed by the DIUx initiative that began fairly recently. Unfortunately funding for that may be zeroed out as the org seems too much like DARPA for members of the House committee. From what I understand the strength of DIUx is in outreach with the Tech community and rapidness in acquisition. With recent events, I personally think closing this program would lead to even more alienation with talent in the Tech community.


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