Return of PEO Summit tackles urgency, delivering at speed, scale

  • Published
  • By Matthew Sablan, Defense Acquisition University, and Matthew Howard, Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition & Sustainment)

In February, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment hosted its semiannual Program Executive Office Summit. The forum allows senior acquisition leaders from across the services and DoD components to discuss common challenges, share best practices and build relationships for improving the delivery of capability to our warfighters, allies and partners.  

William LaPlante, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. CQ Brown Jr. set the scene for the summit with opening comments centered on the current and future threat environments.

"You all have hard, intense jobs," LaPlante said. "Acquisition is a profession and an expertise that takes an incredible amount of knowledge and skill built over time — and I can't emphasize enough how important your work is to our ability to implement the National Defense Strategy."

LaPlante also stressed the importance of delivering innovative ideas to users at scale. 

"You and your program managers are the ones helping to translate the tremendous prototyping and modernization efforts taking place across the department and industry into production," he added. "If we're not getting those capabilities into the hands of the warfighters at scale, we're not fully realizing that innovation." 

Brown echoed the importance of the acquisition community in accelerating change. "Each service is like a Lego set," he offered. "As a joint force, we must be able to take those sets and build something we can constantly reorganize without losing its completeness. Given the urgency of the threat and how quickly it is evolving, we can't be missing a bunch of pieces or have blocks that are incompatible in the first place. We must continue talking about what's at risk and, more importantly, empowering our folks at all ranks to solve the challenge."   

According to Brown, "trust is the foundation of our profession," and getting capability to warfighters more quickly is one way to build that trust. Often, he explained, that means ensuring the doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy are developed in parallel to the prototype, as well as changing culture to get minimum viable products in the hands of warfighters sooner. "We can't always wait until we have the perfect solution. I'd rather have a little less capability faster with trade-space to iterate with the technologists and acquisition experts based on that operator feedback." 

Conversation throughout the summit was guided by four panels discussing DoD's Competitive Advantage Pathfinders, or CAPs, initiative; working with industry; lessons learned from the Adaptive Acquisition Framework; and perspectives from the service acquisition executive. Faculty from Defense Acquisition University facilitated the panel discussions. 

Acquisition for Competitive Advantage 

Established in February 2022, CAPs are demonstrating challenges and solutions to barriers in capability fielding by illuminating disconnects among the three "legs" of enterprise acquisition: requirements, resourcing and program management. Led by Dave Tremper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for acquisition integration and interoperability, the summit's first panel explored the CAPs successes that have accelerated acquisitions by an average of two to four years, often without any additional funding. 

Panelists from each of the services and Joint Staff shared insights on increasing visibility of validated requirements across the joint force; the efficiencies of open systems architectures for enabling rapid hardware and software insertion across systems, platforms and services; and creatively using existing resourcing authorities to be more responsive to the threat in a system currently optimized to operate on two-year budget build cycles.   

Discussion focused on scaling best practices to additional programs, institutionalizing lessons learned and enduring policy reforms, and incentivizing program managers and PEOs to focus on the challenge rather than prescribed processes in order to drive broader cultural change across the acquisition enterprise. 

Working Collaboratively With Industry 

As the department works to build a modernized defense industrial ecosystem that is robust, resilient and dynamic, the second panel addressed common industry challenges and strategies to mitigate them. These can include hiring and retaining a skilled workforce, incentivizing capital expenditures, and providing stable and consistent to industry partners.

From shipbuilding to munitions, the panelists shared how they are navigating the shift from counterinsurgency operations to the great-power competition amidst current events and the post-pandemic labor environment. PEOs emphasized getting funding into execution rapidly, as well as communicating the importance of the patriots that make up the American industrial base.  

The AAF at Five Years: Key Trends and Optimizing for the Future 

The third panel explored major lessons learned since the implementation of the AAF's six pathways and programs that have leveraged the framework's flexibility to improve acquisition outcomes. Successful approaches included transitioning between or combining pathways, as well as evolving contracting strategies to further capitalize on the flexibility designed into the AAF.  

While there continues to be much praise for the AAF — evidenced by year-over-year increases in some of its newer pathways, such as the "middle tier of acquisition" — and for software, panelists and attendees alike shared ideas for further streamlining associated processes and documentation.  

Perspectives From the Top 

Together on one stage for the first time since Nickolas Guertin, assistant secretary of the navy for research, development and acquisition, was confirmed in December, the department's four SAEs closed out the summit by sharing their priorities and efforts to empower greater creativity while reducing risk aversion — something Brown also commented on. 

"There's operational risk, policy risk and fiscal risk," Brown said. "We have to make sure the people who own these risks come together in the same room so we can have the hard conversations and figure out where trade-space exists to accelerate delivery at scale." 

"With efforts like CAPs, we're seeing what is possible in acquisition when we allow — and encourage — our people to think outside the box," LaPlante added in closing out the summit. "I continue to be amazed by the breadth and depth of the incredible work taking place, and I look forward to continue opening the aperture and inviting more of our colleagues across the department to spend a day with us and see firsthand why our acquisition enterprise is a competitive advantage." 

Learn more about Brown's priorities and approaches from his October 2023 Message to the Joint Force.