Material Sustainment Agreements vs. Innovation: a case study

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Commanders want to ensure that their forces are equipped with technologically and operationally relevant equipment so that tasks can be conducted efficiently and with an acceptable level of risk. In an era of Accelerated Warfare, the desire for innovation and adaption in equipping the force is understandable.

Pitted against innovation and adaption is the traditional project structure that delineates between acquisition and sustainment. Acquisition is where the non-obvious resources are located in CASG Systems Program Offices (SPOs); project managers, engineers, integrated logistics specialists, schedulers, and legal counsel. This human capital is essential for selecting and delivering the capabilities outlined in the Integrated Investment Program (IIP), as well as ensuring that the capability is fit for purpose and safe and suitable for service.

Acquisition, with scope agreed under a Materiel Acquisition Agreement, is where the project team is focussed on delivering the agreed capability on time and on budget. It is not the time for innovation or adaption.

Whilst adaption is desirable, in project terms, it amounts to shifting goalposts. Acquisition, in project terms, is finite. When it comes to an end, the specialist human capital that ushered the capability into service are moved to the next project. Sustainment then takes over.

Sustainment is not only trickier, it is far less sexy. Product schedules are governed by Materiel Sustainment Agreements, negotiated and resourced annually between the capability mangers and respective SPOs in CASG. Fleet managers have far fewer humans – and not the ‘right’ type of specialists – at their disposal in this phase of a program. While progress has been made, the old adage of ‘throwing the baby over the fence’ still does frequently occur.

Without supplementation from the finite number of project specialists, generally otherwise committed to acquisition phases of the myriad of projects running in the SPO at the time, they are stuck delivering more of the same rather than innovating to keep the product they’re sustaining up-to-date.

A way ahead?
To answer these micro problems at a macro level, could Defence have a ‘tiger team’ of relevantly-skilled people that can work across various sustainment programs to bring the necessary skills to the table for a set amount of time to accomplish the task at hand?

These tiger teams could go into the nominated program office, under the guidance of the capability manager, project sponsor, and the SPO for a configuration management task, execute engineering change proposals, contract change proposals, and even ensure that the associated technical certification process is undertaken, all in partnership with the fleet manager.

Such teams could be the answer to the natural tension between acquisition and sustainment, and perhaps one of the answers to the Gordian Knot that is (equipment) innovation as more acquisition/spiral development type work is undertaken in the sustainment phase of ADF capabilities.

Another approach would be one that Defence seems to be heading down, which is that of a managing contractor for both acquisition and sustainment. This model can be seen under JP2110 and the soon to be shortlisted Land 8120 for engineer support platforms (large plant equipment).

This approach sees industry managing the entire project life cycle, with Defence contracting for a capability outcome rather than a platform.

This article first appeared in the July 2019 edition of ADM. 

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