Dear Trump: Open the Procurement Black Box
[By Lt. Travis Nicks]
The way we buy stuff is broken. The Department of the Navy acquisition system buys things we don’t need at prices we can’t pay for products that aren’t complete. What we need is up for debate, and so are the prices we pay. However, we have to stop buying incomplete products. When we buy a weapon or platform (ships, aircraft, vehicles, satellites, etc.) without buying its technical data we buy a black box. We own the use of the system but we cannot fix, improve, or optimize; we pull the trigger and see the result. If we need a new result we must buy another expensive black box.
Each major defense contractor has a little fiefdom in Navy acquisitions right now. One has a monopolistic market share in missiles, another in aircraft, etc. There is no competition. The results are the classic follies of oligopoly: quality goes down and prices go up. Mr. Scott O’Neil (SES) served as Executive Director of the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division where he was an engineer and technical manager for 40 years. His immersion in the world of DoD weapons development, contracting, and defense industry interactions led him to determine the precise source of this problem. The root cause of their stranglehold is that each company reserves ownership of the technical drawings and specifications for systems the government supposedly bought and owns the intellectual property (IP) for. The result is two-fold. The government has troves of world-class engineers and scientists who are hamstrung by their contractual restriction from access to technical drawings and specifications for systems their employer, the Navy, should own outright. Also, the government is unable to take that information and have companies compete to develop the system.
Mr. President-Elect, be our champion and negotiate a better situation. Please sign a law, issue a contracting regulation, or create an executive order that ensures that when acquisition contracts are negotiated the government owns both the IP and the technical information – specifically technical drawings and specifications – associated with the complete system. You’ll break up the anti-capitalist oligopoly and restore competition to lower cost, improve quality, and speed up development.
Travis Nicks is a nuclear submarine officer serving at the Pentagon. He is focused on finding precise fixes to complex problems. Lt. Nicks is interested in cyber policy and personnel performance issues. The views herein are his alone and do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, the Department of the Navy, or any other organization.
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The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.