Skip to main content

Middle-Tier Defense Acquisitions: Rapid Prototyping and Fielding Requires Changes to Oversight and Development Approaches

GAO-23-105008 Published: Feb 07, 2023. Publicly Released: Feb 07, 2023.
Jump To:

Fast Facts

DOD is working to improve how fast it develops and delivers weapon systems. DOD has been using a streamlined process to do so—known as the middle tier of acquisitions or MTA pathway—which aims to deliver systems within 5 years from program start.

We found that certain MTA programs that we reviewed don't fully incorporate 4 key principles of product development, such as dropping less urgent requirements to stay on schedule. Following these principles could help programs develop and deliver weapon systems more quickly.

Our recommendations address these and other issues. DOD's weapons acquisitions are on our High Risk List.

This small uncrewed aircraft was developed under the MTA pathway.

Skip to Highlights

Highlights

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) intends to facilitate rapid prototyping and rapid fielding of new weapons and other resources the military has identified it needs. This approach, known as the middle tier of acquisition (MTA), seeks to provide capabilities within 2 to 5 years of an acquisition program's start. DOD established policies and guidance for managing the MTA pathway, but several factors hinder effective implementation and oversight.

For example, an unclear data framework and reporting guidance limit the visibility of MTA program structures, scope, and technical data. As a result, the oversight role of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment with regard to the MTA pathway is diminished. GAO also found that DOD components provided the Under Secretary with inaccurate data. Together, these issues complicate DOD's efforts to conduct data-driven oversight of the MTA pathway.

MTA policies from the Air Force, Army, Navy, and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) each partially implemented at least some of the four key product development principles that leading companies rely on to innovate quickly and successfully.

Component Policies Reflect Some Leading Product Development Principles

Component Policies Reflect Some Leading Product Development Principles

As GAO's latest study of leading acquisition practices found in March 2022, leading companies rely on key principles for successful product development. These include attaining sound business cases, applying iterative design approaches, off-ramping capabilities when needed to prioritize schedule, and incorporating feedback from users of initial capabilities. If the military departments and other DOD components incorporated these leading principles more fully into their MTA policies, they would be better positioned to meet their users' needs with greater speed—the core goal of the MTA pathway.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD is continually challenged to deliver capabilities to its warfighters at the pace of innovation. Section 804 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 required DOD to establish guidance for an alternative acquisition process, now referred to as MTA. Since GAO's June 2019 report on the use of MTA authorities, DOD has reported an increase in programs using the pathway, from 35 programs to nearly 100 in 2022.

In light of this increased use, GAO was asked to review DOD's oversight and execution of MTA programs. This report assesses the extent to which (1) DOD effectively implemented policies, guidance, and processes to provide DOD with reliable data for MTA oversight; and (2) military components' MTA policies and selected programs implement leading principles for product development.

GAO selected a non-generalizable sample of 15 active MTA programs. This selection includes MTA rapid prototyping and rapid fielding programs from the Air Force, Army, Navy, and SOCOM. DOD estimates these programs will require more than $12 billion in funding. GAO also reviewed DOD MTA policies, guidance, and program documentation; compared component MTA policies and programs to the principles; and interviewed DOD officials to corroborate its assessments.

Recommendations

GAO is making 26 recommendations aimed at improving MTA oversight and development through policy and process changes. DOD concurred with 25 recommendations and partially concurred with one.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment and President of the Defense Acquisition University together update the Adaptive Acquisition Framework Documentation Identification tool to accurately reflect MTA documentation requirements. (Recommendation 1)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of Air Force should ensure that processes required under MTA policy for use of the MTA pathway are fully established and documented. (Recommendation 2)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should ensure that processes required under MTA policy for use of the MTA pathway are fully established and documented. (Recommendation 3)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should ensure that processes required under MTA policy for use of the MTA pathway are fully established and documented. (Recommendation 4)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander of Special Operations Command fully establishes and documents processes required under MTA policy for use of the MTA pathway. (Recommendation 5)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment improve its MTA data framework and reporting guidance to better capture program structure and changes in MTA program scope. (Recommendation 6)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should identify and implement additional actions needed to improve the reliability of MTA program data the Air Force submits to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. (Recommendation 7)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should identify and implement additional actions needed to improve the reliability of MTA program data the Army submits to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. (Recommendation 8)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of the Navy should identify and implement additional actions needed to improve the reliability of MTA program data the Navy submits to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. (Recommendation 9)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander of Special Operations Command identify and implement additional actions needed to improve the reliability of MTA program data the Command submits to the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment. (Recommendation 10)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: attaining a sound business case. (Recommendation 11)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: applying iterative design approaches. (Recommendation 12)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: off-ramping capabilities when needed to maintain schedule. (Recommendation 13)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Air Force The Secretary of the Air Force should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: incorporating feedback from users of initial capabilities. (Recommendation 14)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: attaining a sound business case. (Recommendation 15)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: applying iterative design approaches. (Recommendation 16)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: off-ramping capabilities when needed to maintain schedule. (Recommendation 17)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Army The Secretary of the Army should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: incorporating feedback from users of initial capabilities. (Recommendation 18)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of Navy should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: attaining a sound business case. (Recommendation 19)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of Navy should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: applying iterative design approaches. (Recommendation 20)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of Navy should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: off-ramping capabilities when needed to maintain schedule. (Recommendation 21)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of the Navy The Secretary of Navy should update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: incorporating feedback from users of initial capabilities. (Recommendation 22)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander of Special Operations Command update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: attaining a sound business case. (Recommendation 23)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander of Special Operations Command update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: applying iterative design approaches. (Recommendation 24)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander of Special Operations Command update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: off-ramping capabilities when needed to maintain schedule. (Recommendation 25)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Commander of Special Operations Command update component MTA policies to fully implement the following principle throughout development: incorporating feedback from users of initial capabilities. (Recommendation 26)
Open
When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs

Topics

Acquisition policyAcquisition programsAcquisition strategyAircraft acquisition programsCompliance oversightDefense acquisition programsLogisticsMilitary forcesProduct developmentTactical networks