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Defense Exportability – Next Steps

As we turn the page to the New Year, it would seem appropriate for the Department of Defense (DoD) to take stock of what was achieved in efforts to build in defense system exportability in 2020 … and…

Defense Exportability – Next Steps


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Frank Kenlon (Prof of Int'l Acq, DAU/DSMC-Int'l)
As we turn the page to the New Year, it would seem appropriate for the Department of Defense (DoD) to take stock of what was achieved in efforts to build in defense system exportability in 2020 … and begin to think about the work that lies ahead in 2021.

2020 Achievements

As a result of the Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF) concept advocated over the past four years we have several new DoD 5000 series directives and instructions that contain policy guidance on building exportability. In various ways, shapes, and forms, they call for action at the DoD Component Program Management Office (PMO) and Integrated Product Team (IPT) level to build exportability into new and modified DoD systems and equipment. Presumably DoD Component International Program Organizations (IPOs) will play a key role in assisting PMOs/IPTs in how to plan and implement this new AAF policy guidance.

One of my recent blogs, “International Acquisition & Exportability (IA&E) in the Adaptive Acquisition Framework (AAF)” summarizes the key aspects of all of this 5000 series policy direction. I recommend you consult this blog – which has URL hotlinks to the key AAF policy issued regarding building exportability into DoD systems -- if you need a ‘refresher’ on the details of what the new DoD directives and instructions say on this subject.

Who’s Responsible for Implementation?

In my experience, translating new Pentagon-level DoD policy into practice at the individual acquisition program/project level is often challenging. What might lie ahead in 2021 regarding defense exportability implementation?

The AAF construct has delegated almost all Acquisition Category (ACAT) I Major Acquisition Capability (MCA) decision responsibility and authority to the DoD Component Heads and their Component Acquisition Executives (CAEs). They, in turn, have also delegated a substantial amount of MCA decision responsibility and authority to the Major Command and Program Executive Officer (PEO) levels within their respective DoD Components for ACAT II and III programs. In addition, the DoD Components have the authority to initiate and pursue new Middle Tier Acquisition (MTA) and Urgent Capability Acquisition (UCA) programs and projects with limited Office of SecDef and Joint Staff oversight.

Conclusion … the responsibility for building exportability into our future systems and equipment lies squarely with the DoD Components, not the Pentagon acquisition and requirements staffs.

Next Steps?

Implementation of major DoD acquisition policy changes by DoD Components typically occurs at three levels:

  • Strategic: New DoD Component policy on the topic is developed by each DoD Component CAE.
  • Operational: Key organizations within the DoD Component – including Major Commands and PEOs – develop an initial set of guidelines to commence implementation at the program level.
  • Tactical: PMs and IPTs, supported by subject matter experts -- in this case the DoD Component IPOs – attempt to implement the new policy/guidelines by developing specific procedures to use in their individual programs/projects.

Through experiential learning, the DoD Component’s guidelines are (sooner or later) sharpened up and internal “best practice” procedures are eventually developed, shared, and implemented within the Component.

DoD Component-level implementation of new DoD-level acquisition policy tends to operate based on Observe – Orient – Decide – Act (OODA) Loop principles. Each individual DoD Component’s OODA Loop performance at the tactical and operational levels typically varies based on the following ‘chain of command’ influences. Here are a few thoughts on how DoD Component implementation of the AAF building exportability policy initiative could evolve:

  • Office of SecDef: Will the new set of DoD acquisition senior leaders in OSD arriving at their jobs in 2021 care about building exportability? If so, how much, and how will they demonstrate their level of interest in achievement of the previous Administration’s AAF building exportability policy initiative?
  • DoD Component Heads/CAEs: Essentially the set of same questions as OSD.
  • PEOs: The most difficult tradeoffs decisions in programs occur at this level, typically based on PM recommendations. Consider reading “IA&E and Lashley’s Laws” for further insights as to why this is so. Depending on the level of interest (and pressure) applied by the CAE and Major Command(s) in a PEO’s chain – including the DoD Component ‘resource sponsor’ responsible for funding the program – unfunded DoD policy mandates like building in defense exportability may be either seriously considered or ‘thrown under the bus’ in the inevitable, annual Darwinian struggle within the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution System (PPBES) that determines what is funded in a program (and what isn’t).
  • PMs/IPTs: At the end of the day, acquisition professionals know that PMs – and the military and civilian personnel that report to them -- are evaluated based on the program-level performance, cost, and schedule outcomes they are responsible for achieving. Regarding IA&E outcomes, the IPT organizations and DoD Component IPO staff typically do their best to help the PMOs as best they can within the resource constraints they face (many PM requests, not always enough time and talent available to respond).

Potential Challenges

Some believe that DoD policy implementation complex , like Star Trek ‘Three Level Chess.’ Others like me believe it is conceptually simple, more like checkers or tick-tac-toe.

In my view, the ultimate success or failure of implementing DoD IA&E’s building exportability policy initiative at the program level will depend primarily upon the level passion and effort – and the corresponding amount of persistence (rather than brilliance) -- devoted by the DoD Components to its achievement. Here a few areas that bear watching:

  • Insufficient Will: Freedom is not free, and neither is building exportability into our new systems. There is a lot of uncertainty involved in defining realistic and economically viable defense exportability requirements early in the process, then successfully implementing them through program level design and development efforts. DoD’s Defense Exportability Pilot programs and unilateral DoD Component building exportability initiatives have demonstrated it can be done, but it appears the lessons learned from previous efforts may not be well-known or widely available to PMOs/IPTs (at least not yet). If only because of fear of the unknown, some PMOs/IPTs may decide to “run-away” (see Monty Python and the Holy Grail for details) at the first sign of difficulty encountered when attempting to tackle the exportability considerations associated with their program. The PEO responsible for oversight – supported by the DoD Component IPO, if necessary – should be ready for this and counsel PMOs/IPTs to stick with building exportability efforts despite any initial challenges they may encounter rather than immediately default to an "exportability not required" perspective.
  • Delayed Gratification: The real payoff from building exportability into a new system – if it manages to make it through development and into production – usually starts occurring about five to seven years after initiating building exportability efforts at the program level. Typically the first two PMs (and their PMOs/IPTs) do all the suffering, and the subsequent PMs (plus the DoD Component and DoD) reap the benefits of follow-on International Cooperative Program (ICP) and Foreign Military Sales (FMS) investment and economic order quantity savings. Moreover, the Operational Commanders who didn’t even know they should care about system defense exportability in earlier years are very grateful that it’s exportable to the allies and friends they are training/fighting together at various locations around the globe. Put yourself in the shoes of the first or second suffering PM when the program is struggling and its future is uncertain. What would you do?
  • Enterprise-Wide Scale: As of mid-2020 DoD had 85 Major Defense Acquisition Programs and hundreds of ACAT II/III and MTA/UCA programs. Program oversight responsibilities for all but a handful of these now rest with the DoD Components. The number of DoD Component personnel who will be responsible for exercising Milestone Decision Authority over these programs – including making key building exportability decisions at each milestone – is unknown. However, I estimate that DoD-wide it must be around 100 or more one star-level Flag/General Officer/Senior Executive Service key acquisition officials. Only a handful of them have been informed/trained regarding why building exportability is important, what PMO/IPTs should be trying to achieve in this area, and how to evaluate potentially difficult trade-off decisions that may arise. Moreover, they could encounter difficulty obtaining building exportability subject matter expertise from their DoD Component IPOs who, as previously noted, may be unable to respond due to resource constraints.


I’d like to emphasize that I did not write this blog to be a “Dennis or Debbie Downer.” Instead, my goal was to paint a realistic picture of the challenges ahead in 2021 regarding the implementation of this critically important IA&E area. The AAF building exportability policy, if successfully implemented, would result in a quantum leap in U.S. Government and DoD Acquisition and Security Cooperation performance in the future. Our allies and friends, as well as U.S. industry, would substantially benefit as well.

Challenges like this are not without precedent. One that I lived through as DoD acquisition workforce member was the successful implementation of a Navy-DoD Insensitive Munitions Policy. After several operational disasters, it became obvious to Navy and DoD senior leaders that strict insensitive munitions standards had to be implemented on a DoD-wide basis. At the program level, this caused tremendous disruption due to the program management, technical, and funding challenges posed by the new policy. Many DoD weapons and ordnance programs wanted to delay the policy's implementation or obtain waivers. It took several years, but eventually joint service and NATO-level implementation of the policy achieved what we have today, a much safer – yet still effective -- domestic and international operational environment for our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines.

I believe we could achieve DoD-wide building exportability success at the program level if a similar level of passion, effort, and talent were devoted to its eventual achievement. We’ve all heard about the importance of first steps in journeys to a better future. Hopefully the DoD acquisition workforce will be able to start down the path towards building exportability into its programs in 2021.

Until next time, Prof K