Weapon Systems:

Prototyping Has Benefited Acquisition Programs, but More Can Be Done to Support Innovation Initiatives

GAO-17-309: Published: Jun 27, 2017. Publicly Released: Jun 27, 2017.

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DOD invests roughly $70 billion annually in weapon system research and development, including prototyping—the development and testing of a model or weapon system design.

When used effectively, prototyping reduces risk and improves the likelihood that weapon systems will be completed on time and within budget. It also keeps DOD’s technology pipeline stocked with innovative technologies that may provide a leap ahead in military capability. DOD has several new prototyping initiatives under way, but has not developed a comprehensive strategy for these efforts.

Among other things, we recommend that DOD develop such a department-wide strategy.

Army's Advanced Weapons Sight Technology Used Prototyping to Mature Technology

Photo of a soldier testing weapons sight technology.

Photo of a soldier testing weapons sight technology.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Michael J. Sullivan
(202) 512-4841
sullivanm@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has used prototyping on its major defense acquisition programs (MDAP) primarily to reduce technical risk, investigate integration challenges, validate designs, mature technologies, and refine performance requirements. Of the 22 programs GAO reviewed, 17 used prototyping before starting system development. For many of those programs, prototyping provided information that helped introduce realism into their business cases by providing information on technology maturity, the feasibility of the design concepts, potential costs, and the achievability of planned performance requirements.

DOD has developed new initiatives that are outside of major defense acquisition programs to increase prototyping and further innovation. However, these initiatives face barriers, such as limited funding, a risk averse culture, and competing priorities. Literature on private sector innovation identifies key enablers for these types of efforts, such as developing an innovation strategy, aligning investments with innovation goals, and protecting funding for riskier projects. DOD has taken steps that are consistent with a few, but not all, of these enablers. For example, DOD does not have a department-wide strategy that communicates strategic goals and priorities and delineates roles and responsibilities to guide the prototyping initiatives. This could lead to unproductive or poorly coordinated investments later. DOD's initiatives also face competition for funding, particularly with acquisition programs. One strategy to address funding issues called “strategic buckets” involves allocating resources to different types of projects based on an organization's strategy (see figure). DOD has not set strategic funding targets for its initiatives. Failing to do so could prevent them from gaining traction and puts their long-term success at risk.

Notional Strategic Bucket Approach for Funding Different Prototyping and Innovation Efforts

Notional Strategic Bucket Approach for Funding Different Prototyping and Innovation Efforts

Notes: Incremental innovation seeks to gradually improve existing products and capabilities. Disruptive innovation attempts to shift the balance of military power by providing new capabilities, potentially unforeseen by customers, such as the military services, or adversaries.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD invests roughly $70 billion annually in weapon system research, development, test, and evaluation, including prototyping activities. Prototyping can help reduce risk in weapon system acquisition programs by improving understanding of technologies, requirements, and proposed solutions. It can also contribute to innovation by demonstrating the value of new technologies or systems.

House Conference Report 114-102 accompanying a bill for the fiscal year 2016 National Defense Authorization Act included a provision for GAO to review how DOD's research and development funds are used and whether this approach effectively supports activities such as prototyping. This report assesses (1) how DOD has used prototyping prior to system development on major defense acquisition programs, and (2) what steps DOD has taken to increase innovation through prototyping activities outside of major defense acquisition programs. GAO examined prototyping activities for 22 MDAPs that planned to enter system development between December 2009 and February 2016 and 7 prototyping-focused initiatives with the stated purpose of promoting innovation.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making four recommendations, including that DOD develop a department-wide innovation strategy that includes prototyping and adopt a more strategic approach for funding prototyping efforts across DOD. DOD concurred with the recommendations and is currently working on this strategy.

For more information, contact Michael J. Sullivan at (202) 512-4841 or sullivanm@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with our recommendation, but its progress on addressing it has stalled. In November 2019, DOD's Prototyping Guidebook indicated that the department was developing policy and strategy documents pertaining to prototyping. As part of this effort, the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering was drafting a broad DOD Research and Engineering strategy that would include strategies pertaining to prototyping and innovation and address this recommendation. As of August 2020, DOD had not published this strategy.

    Recommendation: To help ensure DOD takes a strategic approach for its prototyping and innovation initiatives and overcomes funding and cultural barriers, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to develop a high-level DOD-wide strategy, in collaboration with the military services and other appropriate DOD components, to communicate strategic goals and priorities and delineate roles and responsibilities among DOD's prototyping and innovation initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation and has implemented an approach similar to "strategic buckets" to ensure its investments in innovation align with its modernization priorities. Specifically, in 2018, the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering identified 11 modernization priorities, including hypersonics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, and directed energy, and implemented an organizational structure to help ensure its investments in innovation were aligned with them. The Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering also assigned Principal Directors to oversee each of the modernization priorities. These Principal Directors establish roadmaps for research and engineering investments in each of these priority areas.

    Recommendation: To help ensure DOD takes a strategic approach for its prototyping and innovation initiatives and overcomes funding and cultural barriers, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to take steps, such as adopting a "strategic buckets" approach, to help ensure adequate investments in innovation that align with DOD-wide strategy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation and has established two new coordination mechanisms that address it. Specifically, in December 2019, the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering established a forum and a prototyping steering group that meets semi-annually to review and coordinate funding requests for key budget activity 6.4-funded prototyping programs, such as the Rapid Prototyping Program and the Rapid Prototyping Fund. Participants include senior representatives from across the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Joint Staff, military services, Combatant Commands, defense agencies, and other prototyping stakeholders. This forum and steering group prioritize prototyping investments, ensure they are aligned with modernization priorities, and deconflict them from other ongoing or proposed activities across DOD and the military services.

    Recommendation: To help ensure DOD takes a strategic approach for its prototyping and innovation initiatives and overcomes funding and cultural barriers, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to expand the Community of Interest working groups to include budget activity 6.4-funded prototyping and innovation initiatives in their science and technology planning and coordination processes or employ a similar coordination mechanism for budget activity 6.4-funded prototyping and innovation initiatives.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DOD agreed with this recommendation and has made policy and other changes to address it. In July 2020, DOD issued a directive on the roles and responsibilities for the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. The Under Secretary's responsibilities include identifying, tracking, and overseeing all budget activity 6.4 resources in order to ensure effective prototyping and the alignment of those resources to DOD goals. In addition, the Office of the Under Secretary established a forum and a prototyping steering group in December 2019 that meets semi-annually to review funding requests for key budget activity 6.4-funded prototyping programs, such as the Rapid Prototyping Program and the Rapid Prototyping Fund, and ensure they are aligned with modernization priorities.

    Recommendation: To help ensure DOD takes a strategic approach for its prototyping and innovation initiatives and overcomes funding and cultural barriers, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to review budget activity 6.4 funding requests to help maintain a level of investment for budget activity 6.4-funded prototyping and innovation efforts that is consistent with DOD-wide strategy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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