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Closing the Innovation Gap by Rethinking Defense Acquisition Education


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Closing the Innovation Gap by Rethinking Defense Acquisition Education

by Col. Robert F. Mortlock, USA (Ret.), Ph. D., and Col. Raymond D. Jones, USA (Ret.)

The Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) provides relevant and defense-focused education that enables U.S. Armed Forces to enhance security, protect national interests, defend freedom, preserve economic prosperity, and maintain freedom of movement globally. NPS graduates must be able to develop, deploy, and implement advanced warfighting capability throughout the spectrum of conflict by delivering relevant and innovative combat capabilities. Strategic thinking, innovation, and technical excellence are integral to ensuring on-time delivery, execution, and support for warfighting operational needs.

The Department of Defense (DoD) must maintain its global strategic advantage. DoD forces must be able to operate effectively across complicated and unpredictable warfighting domains with leaders who can navigate and make relevant and effective decisions in a complex military-civilian industrial sector. Understanding the “business” side of defense is indispensable. Education in the acquisition sciences reduces risk while supporting innovation and the transition of emerging technologies during times of constrained resources and increasingly capable adversaries.

The DoD is moving toward an enterprise-wide, integrated, and strategic system for improving the knowledge, skills, competencies, and abilities that are critical to military readiness and competitive advantage. Education curricula, research, and experiential learning are all elements that contribute to professional development. Defense acquisitions have three major characteristics: They are complex, they are opaque (not transparent), and they demonstrate both external and internal dynamics that are never fully understood by the people charged with their execution. These realities often result in overly simplistic, short-term decisions with significant impacts on total force operational and financial readiness. Failure or less-than-optimal performance in executing acquisition programs not only wastes critical DoD resources; it also delays delivery of capabilities to the Warfighter. Getting it right the first time is critical.

U.S. national security will be severely impacted if we continue training our acquisition warriors with 20th century educational strategies that do not provide the skills needed to maintain agility in a time of rapidly changing technology and threats. NPS is a leader in innovative acquisition sciences that will ensure the innovation gap between technology ideas and operational capability remains shorter than the timelines of changing national security threats. Defense acquisition remains fundamental to the deepening NPS focus on DoD war-fighting outcomes. 

“The Nation that makes a great distinction between its scholars and its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.”
—19th century British Maj. Gen. Charles George Gordon


NPS is transitioning to a more agile and responsive construct that maintains best-in-class graduate education and research with a proven strategy that spans many generations. A critical part of that strategy has been its adaptability to the changing nature of learning in a volatile national security environment. That adaptability distinguishes NPS among graduate-level educational institutions.

Most recently, NPS significantly changed its approach to defense management education, focusing more precisely on acquisition sciences and accelerated delivery of effective operational capability to the Warfighter. NPS consolidated its business programs around the DoD Acquisition Decision Support System (DADSS), which is designed to innovate and deliver warfighting capability. To facilitate this consolidation, the Graduate School of Defense Management (GSDM) in November 2021 transitioned from a “school” to the streamlined Department of Defense Management (DDM). DDM provides graduate education and research specifically focused on the DADSS processes necessary for transitioning critical capability to meet DoD operational needs.

DDM’s primary curricular tracks focus on the acquisition sciences of Defense Program Management, Defense Contract Management, Defense Logistics Management, Defense Financial Management, and Defense Manpower Management. These DDM programs provide a cost-effective and interdisciplinary curriculum within the framework of DoD warfighting priorities through a variety of delivery modalities tailored to the customer’s operational tempo. Leading scholars in their disciplines, who possess deep knowledge of the national security environment and challenges, teach DDM courses. NPS warrior scholars (students) and faculty work closely throughout the entire learning experience, both in and out of the classroom, to enhance the experience.

Figure 1 highlights the NPS approach for delivering graduate education in the acquisition sciences—integrating the technical, acquisition, and operational domains in education and research to meet DoD operational needs. NPS acquisition education receives input from the NPS mission, Naval Warfare Studies Institute, and various acquisition stakeholders to balance curricula and individual courses with acquisition research and the Warfighter Acquisition Simulation Environment. This produces operationally focused strategic leaders who deliver functional solutions that increase combat effectiveness across the spectrum of potential conflicts.

Figure 1. Acquisition as a Force Multiplier​
Figure 1. Acquisition as a Force Multiplier

Integrating technical, acquisition, and operational domains in education and research to meet DoD operational requirements.

Source: Author


DDM offers a variety of graduate-level educational opportunities in the acquisition sciences, from one-day immersive case studies and weeklong courses to programs like the Advanced Acquisition Studies certificate and Master of Science degrees—in either resident mode or online distance learning formats (Figure 2). The acquisition education options are modular, flexible, and tailorable to meet the needs of acquisition communities, sponsors, acquisition professionals, and, most importantly, scholar-warrior students. Curricula, program, and course learning objectives focus on the core competences of critical thinking, decision making, problem solving, innovation, resource management, stakeholder engagement, and data analytics.

Figure 2. NPS Acquisition Education Portfolio​

Figure 2. NPS Acquisition Education Portfolio

Innovation Capstone Project

DDM students may participate in the new, complementary DDM innovation capstone project (ICP) instead of the more traditional thesis capstone approach. The innovation capstone integrates students and faculty, referred to as integrated capstone teams, brought together from across many DoD management and engineering disciplines to work on an urgent, real-world problem in support of operational warfighting requirements. Students work directly with faculty, Warfighters, other academic institutions, and innovative small companies that can provide unique solutions to the problem being addressed.

Student teams have direct access to industry through the NPS Tech Bridge, approved Partnership Intermediary Agreements, and the operational forces as they develop innovative solutions combined with realistic strategies allowing solutions to transition to programs of record. This is a first-of-its-kind program that emphasizes outcomes-based education that directly impacts the DoD operational and strategic environment.

Warfighter Acquisition Simulation Environment

The ICP eventually will integrate into a more significant effort known as the Warfighter Acquisition Simulation Environment (WASE) for studying complex warfighting scenarios in the context of defense acquisition and management (Figure 3). This simulation approach facilitates assessment of new and innovative defense management strategies and their effects on the current and future battlespace. WASE will integrate requirements generation, program management, systems engineering, contracting, and budgeting/finance modules through a system-dynamics-based interactive simulation to provide a more realistic and relevant understanding of challenges and solutions. The simulation will present interactive scenarios that stress current decision-making paradigms and drive decision makers to innovative, risk-informed strategies.

WASE will be designed to support the entire life-cycle process, from requirements generation to operations and sustainment of critical weapon systems. WASE interactive scenarios will represent realistic challenges in determining which critical technology solutions will best meet the Warfighters’ needs. This will allow actual scenarios testing, in much the same way as operational warfighting experiments at the Army’s National Training Center. WASE will leverage the capabilities and expertise of the NPS Modeling Virtual Environments and Simulation Institute to construct a simulated environment necessary to stress the learners.

The WASE is founded on two core perspectives about training and managing DoD weapons system development programs:

  • Experiential learning, a process through which students develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.
  • Collaborative analysis in a simulated yet realistic acquisition environment to allow Warfighters, acquisition warriors, and contractors to gain knowledge and experience—as well as face risk of failure—before selecting and managing a weapons system development.

Our Warfighters across the Services use an effective mix of education and training with capstone exercises built on simulations designed to deliver battlefield conditions that are as realistic as possible. The environment provides active learning by simulating not only the environment but also the stress and “fog of war.” The learning is active. Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines learn experientially by doing—and through reflection on what they are doing. We need to go beyond the classroom-based passive learning as the primary means of preparing DoD/Service program managers for their roles in managing development and acquisitions of multimillion-dollar, complex weapons systems. TheNPS approach creates an active learning environment enabled by simulation that emphasizes not only making decisions but experiencing the results of those decisions.

This new approach to acquisition education uses collaborative analysis, a form of wargaming. NPS creates a simulation that puts scholar-warriors in a fast-tempo technology development environment and effectively compresses time and greatly accelerates learning so that it occurs faster than it would on the job. In other words, NPS wants to use simulation to provide acquisition warriors an accurate-as-possible-environment that is intellectually and emotionally challenging while forgiving the mistakes of learners. This process has been used effectively in Warfighter training across the Services but has never been applied to the acquisition field.

Figure 3. Warfighter Acquisition Simulation Environment (WASE)

Figure 3. Warfighter Acquisition Simulation Environment (WASE)

Back-to-Basics Acquisition Training

The Back-to-Basics (BtB) initiative streamlined and prioritized training resources by restructuring and consolidating 14 acquisition career fields into six functional areas: Program Management, Contracting, Life Cycle Logistics, Engineering and Technical Management, Test and Evaluation, and Business Financial Management/Cost Estimating.

In support of the BtB effort, NPS and DAU recently signed a memorandum of agreement that outlines an approach to synchronizing delivery of education by integrating DAU courses into NPS graduate-level courses and curricula. DAU’s mission is to provide a global learning environment to develop qualified acquisition professionals who deliver and sustain effective and affordable warfighting capabilities, while NPS offers graduate degrees in the acquisition sciences.

DAU has committed resources to providing NPS students with the training courses scheduled within the NPS academic calendar. NPS students can earn their graduate degree while taking DAU courses to meet professional Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA) certification requirements. Their training will be documented by a DAU transcript and official Service personnel training records. Integration of DAU training into NPS graduate-level courses allows NPS to focus on developing critical thinking, problem solving, decision making, resource management, strategic leadership, and stakeholder engagement skills. NPS uses integrated team exercises and immersive case studies, while basic acquisition concepts are covered in the DAU training.


Robust research in the acquisition sciences is fundamental to delivering graduate education. The Acquisition Research Program (ARP) was strategically founded in 2003 to provide an academic home for defense acquisition research. ARP provides interdisciplinary, applied research in acquisition sciences, hones the professional graduate education of the next generation of defense acquisition innovators, and forges connections with acquisition thought leaders. This enhances the operational effectiveness of the U.S. Naval and Joint Forces.

The ARP graduate student research program supports between 60 and 80 scholar-warriors yearly with relevant topics, travel funding, editing and transcription service, and a connection to research faculty advisors and sponsors. The annual Acquisition Research Symposium highlights innovative research by NPS faculty, industry, universities, think tanks, policymakers, and students.

ARP also houses the Defense Acquisition Innovation Repository, including more than 2,600 research products that range from technical reports and symposium papers and presentations to student research reports, posters, and videos. ARP’s three lines of efforts are applied research, graduate education, and community engagement (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Acquisition Research Program (ARP)​
Figure 4. Acquisition Research Program (ARP)

Source: Author

We need to go beyond the classroom-based passive learning as the primary means of preparing DoD/Service program managers for their roles in managing development and acquisitions of multimillion-dollar, complex weapons systems.


Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Professor of Physics Frank Narducci, right, shows a Dual Atom Interferometer Accelerometer/Gyoscope to Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Barbara McQuiston during a tour of the Quantum Sensor Lab at NPS, Dec. 14, 2021.  Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tom Tonthat Photo cropped to show detail.

Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) Professor of Physics Frank Narducci, right, shows a Dual Atom Interferometer Accelerometer/Gyoscope to Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Barbara McQuiston during a tour of the Quantum Sensor Lab at NPS, Dec. 14, 2021.

Source: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Tom Tonthat
Photo cropped to show detail.

NPS, a graduate school of the U.S. Navy and the DoD, provides defense-relevant and operationally focused education. It employs experts in the acquisition disciplines, from systems and domain engineering to acquisition policy, contracts, finance, and acquisition program management. Since its inception, the DDM’s learned faculty and professional staff have provided valued education second to none.

The DDM transformation reflects an adaptation of NPS educational priorities evolving to meet the national security challenges and fiscal environment. The next era of national security challenges demands heightened thinking ability that can adapt to the adversary and deliver innovative technological and operational results faster and more affordably than ever. These challenges provide the forcing function that motivates NPS to continue aligning its core competencies in education and research to arm its graduates with significant overmatch capabilities against future adversaries (Figure 5).

Continued investment in the education and training of active-duty officers and DoD civilians and providing graduate degrees in the acquisition sciences will pay dividends in the form of financially astute and business-savvy acquisition professionals leading fiscally responsible programs and delivering timely and effective warfighting capabilities. This in turn affects warfighting outcomes—providing senior policymakers, leaders, and decision authorities with a high level of acquisition sciences acumen and a great return on investment for the DoD!




MORTLOCK is a professor of practice and principal investigator of the Acquisition Research Program at the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) in Monterey, Calif. He holds a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley. Mortlock also holds DAWIA Level III certifications in program management, test and evaluation, and engineering; and Professional Engineering, Project Management Professional, and Program Management Professional credentials.

JONES is an acquisition sciences and program management professor and Chair of Department of Defense Management at NPS. He holds M.S. degrees from both Dwight D. Eisenhower School for National Security and Resource Strategy and NPS. Jones holds DAWIA Level III certifications in program management, test and evaluation, and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Experimental Test Pilot School.

The authors can be contacted at [email protected] and [email protected].

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