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Transforming Defense Acquisition: On Acquisition with Andrew Hunter

Official photo for Andrew Hunter.
Matthew Sablan / May 30, 2024

Transforming Defense Acquisition: On Acquisition with Andrew Hunter

Andrew Hunter, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics shared his vision with DAU President Jim Woolsey on transforming defense acquisition. Hunter highlighted the Air Force's ambitious plans to reshape and optimize the Air Force and Space Force, focusing on high-priority missions aligned with the National Defense Strategy, including deterring and, if necessary, engaging in conflicts with peer competitors.

Identifying Challenges

The Air Force oversees 550 programs worth more than $60 billion of research, development and acquisition. Hunter emphasized key areas such as Agile software development, aiming to implement innovative business models and contracting approaches. While acknowledging the Air Force has progress to make, Hunter recognized significant advancements in certain areas and stressed the importance of sharing these successful practices across the entire acquisition enterprise.

The Fundamental Work of Acquisition

What is the fundamental work of acquisition? Hunter discussed the essential tasks in acquisition, including risk management and engineering. He emphasized the need to tailor approaches to specific goals and highlighted the importance of identifying and distributing knowledge from successful projects. One area the Air Force is currently focused on is finding these pockets of excellence and “distribut[ing] that knowledge, that wisdom,” Hunter explained. Rotating people to new areas will help spread this expertise across the organization.

Hunter acknowledged that while the Air Force understands its challenges, it needs comprehensive plans to address them. He stressed the importance of tight coordination between the acquisition enterprise and experts to define problems and implement solutions. Vertical and horizontal integration within the organization fosters a collaborative environment that drives innovation. “It’s every echelon of the organization, from the secretary and the chief… to every level of the program team down,” Hunter said. This integration served as one of the Air Force’s key insights that led to reoptimizing for the Great Power Competition initiative, Hunter explained. Read more on the Air Force’s insight into their reoptimization for the Great Power Competition.

Success: The Collaborative Combat Aircraft

Woolsey asked about the collaborative combat aircraft as a prime example of a successful acquisition strategy. “It’s certainly part of the air dominance system of systems,” Woolsey said, outlining the “unique acquisition strategy” the program required. This program involved multiple vendors and labs, leveraging mature technologies to meet urgent needs.

Hunter cautioned that there are limitations to different acquisition approaches, and that what works for complex acquisitions like the collaborative combat aircraft is not a silver bullet. The aircraft fit the strengths of this approach, as it was a “capability that we needed to field quickly,” Hunter said. “You can’t invent on a schedule and just hope that it goes faster,” Hunter said, explaining that this reality of the limits of innovation led the team to the solution of relying on existing mature technologies. “We were able to build on a foundation that had already been laid by the next generation air dominance program,” Hunter said, using the existing foundation of technical architecture, risk reduction work, contracting vehicles and other tools to accelerate the aircraft’s acquisition. “Skyborg was a critical predecessor,” Hunter said, and served as a “proof of principle for the state of technology on the autonomy side.” Early collaboration with projects like Skyborg ensured that the team understood existing technologies, which accelerated the acquisition process.

From Foundation to Future: Active Management

“We were able to build on all of that foundation to get going very quickly,” Hunter said. “We are now on contract with two vendors to build production representative test vehicles and on a path to move to production in the next few years.” This approach includes a focus on cybersecurity, sustainment, and systems engineering from the early stages, ensuring comprehensive solutions.

Another benefit was that it forced the acquisition team to obtain commitments from the operational community. The operational community “gave us experts … some of their very best to engage with us to really work through the operational questions,” Hunter said. Their insight provided the team a chance to work with the contractor to ensure that the final, delivered product included solutions to problems that would not have been identified without the operators’ input.

Lessons Learned

Integration will be critical to the future of acquisition. “We are engaged with a pacing challenge that is challenging us like never before,” Hunter said. This challenge has created a demand signal for government and industry expertise. Experiences, like the collaborative combat aircraft, serve to both build and leverage that expertise. “We have to go away from the mentality that says this is my lane,” Hunter said. “Collaboration across fields, across areas of expertise, is really critical.”

On Acquisition is a DAU web event series that allows Woolsey to speak with senior leaders inside and outside the Department of Defense. Listen to the full interview for more insights into the Air Force's acquisition strategies, budget cycles, digital engineering, and the role of DAU in supporting these initiatives.

Official photo for Andrew Hunter. Matthew Sablan