Navy pilot program seeks rapid development and better funding approach

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WASHINGTON — One of the U.S. Navy’s program executive offices is a few months into a pilot program aimed at enabling rapid acquisition, which could pave the way for a larger change in how the military branches develop and buy weapons systems.

Program Executive Officer for Integrated Warfare Systems Rear Adm. Seiko Okano was tapped this fall to lead a pilot program centered on two efforts: finding creative solutions to warfighter problems that can be tested and fielded quickly, and then considering how to change the budgeting process so these new capabilities can be quickly purchased.

Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro announced the pilot program around the same time he signed off on the establishment of the Disruptive Capabilities Office and the Department of the Navy Science and Technology Board, with all three efforts acknowledging technology and global threats are moving much faster than the traditional acquisition system.

“We have to get capability out faster,” Okano told Defense News in a Dec. 15 interview. “People are kind of like, okay, well, how do you do this? Because our whole system is rigged to get capability out in the five- to 10-year timeframe.”

To address the first goal of the pilot program, Okano said, PEO IWS established a Rapid Capabilities Office to talk to fleet operators about the problems they face and identify what existing technology could solve those problems.

An early case was a requirement for more Standard Missile-6 launchers at sea. The SM-6 is launched from ships and can be used against enemy aircraft, incoming cruise and ballistic missiles and even ships, making it a flexible option fleet commanders want more of.

Within months, PEO IWS led an effort to install a virtualized Aegis Combat System and containerized launcher cells onto littoral combat ship Savannah, culminating in a successful October test event.

Through this bolt-on solution, the Navy could quickly put more missile launchers out to sea without paying for expensive modifications to its ships.

The littoral combat ship Savannah fires an SM-6 missile from a containerized launching system.

Okano said this months-long effort would have taken years if not for the pilot program, which rapidly engineered and tested the capability.

The next step, though, is important: for something to come out of the successful test event, Okano said.

The so-called valley of death many technologies face after a successful demonstration comes about because the research and development community struggles to find a program office to transition the idea into the budgeting process.

Under this pilot, though, “if there’s an experiment, because it’s within the PEO, we can shepherd that through that valley of death and then get it into a program of record, if necessary, and then have a sustainment tail,” Okano said. Having the idea-generation, testing and acquisition processes all within the PEO is what separates this pilot from other acquisition efforts.

The challenge in the case of the SM-6s on LCSs is the specificity of how the government budgets. Within PEO IWS alone, Okano said, there are 169 different weapons systems funded by nearly 100 budget lines, or program elements. The budgets for these program elements are crafted two or three years in advance, leaving little room to adjust based on a successful demonstration like the one on Savannah.

But, she said, if there were fewer program elements — perhaps a collective pot of money for all the missiles, for all the sensors, and so on — then the PEO could buy more SM-6 missiles at the expense of something else within that portfolio facing production delays or less urgently needed, for example.

In this way, the Navy wouldn’t be spending more money to fund these emerging capabilities; it would have the flexibility to fund them using money initially marked for another program.

Over the next year or two, the pilot program will continue to weigh the right program element structure to allow for funding flexibility while also giving Navy, Defense Department and congressional leadership transparency and oversight.

Okano said the Marine Corps’ PEO Land Systems is also participating in this pilot program, and some of the technology development efforts underway involve both PEOs developing capabilities for the naval team. She declined to disclose what technologies are under consideration.

While the pilot program might not be a good fit for other PEOs that acquire large ships, Okano said she is already in contact with weapons PEOs in the Army and Air Force to compare how they manage their budget line items and see what kind of joint capability they could potentially develop and test under this effort.

Asked how this pilot program would be measured, Okano said the key is quickly getting something useful to the fleet.

“The metrics that we’re looking at are different than what program managers are traditionally graded on, which is cost, schedule, performance,” she said.

Under the pilot, “the first thing is, what’s that capability, and how fast did you get it to the fleet? I think the second metric is, can you scale? The third metric, in my opinion, is impact to fleet [for its] installation — so, hey, I experimented with something, I can build a lot of them, but oh by the way, you have to take ship offline for two years. No deal.

“The capability has to be, this thing is in a container and I can just put it on the ship. That’s a win,” she said.

Megan Eckstein is the naval warfare reporter at Defense News. She has covered military news since 2009, with a focus on U.S. Navy and Marine Corps operations, acquisition programs and budgets. She has reported from four geographic fleets and is happiest when she’s filing stories from a ship. Megan is a University of Maryland alumna.

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