Skip to main content

DOD Acquisition Reform: Leadership Attention Needed to Effectively Implement Changes to Acquisition Oversight

GAO-19-439 Published: Jun 05, 2019. Publicly Released: Jun 05, 2019.
Jump To:

Fast Facts

Members of Congress have been concerned that DOD's weapons acquisition process is too bureaucratic and slow to deliver innovations to the field. (DOD acquisitions are on our High Risk List.) Recent legislation included reforms to try to speed up the process.

DOD has begun to carry out these reforms, including shifting more oversight decisions from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the military departments and using a more streamlined process in some cases. However, questions remain about oversight roles and how some reforms will be implemented.

Our recommendations include clarifying acquisition oversight roles and responsibilities.


An aerial view of the Pentagon.

An aerial view of the Pentagon.

Skip to Highlights


What GAO Found

The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in implementing reforms to restructure the oversight of major defense acquisition programs. As a result of one of these reforms, decision-making authority for many programs shifted from the Office of the Secretary of Defense to the military departments (see figure).

Decision Authority Level for Major Defense Acquisition Programs from 2012 to 2019

U:\Work in Process\VCA_Graphics\FY 19\NRE\102560_CNSA_19_439_DOD Acquisition_SS\Graphic Files\Highlight_5_v1_102560.tif

Questions remain about how some reforms GAO reviewed will be carried out. For example, no programs have been required to have cost and fielding goals set under DOD's new process yet, and DOD has formed a working group to determine when to delegate risk assessments to the military departments.

DOD also began using new pathways referred to as middle-tier acquisition to rapidly prototype and field new weapon systems. Middle-tier programs are expected to field capabilities within 2 to 5 years. As of March 2019, military departments were using this authority for 35 unclassified programs (see table).

Number and Type of Unclassified Middle-Tier Acquisition Programs Started as of March 2019


Rapid Prototyping

Rapid Fielding

Air Force












Source: GAO analysis of Department of Defense data. | GAO-19-439

DOD has yet to fully determine how it will oversee middle-tier acquisition programs, including what information should be required to ensure informed decisions about program selection and how to measure program performance. Without consistent oversight, DOD is not well positioned to ensure that these programs—some of which are multibillion dollar acquisitions—are likely to meet expectations for delivering prototypes or capability to the warfighter quickly.

DOD also continues to face implementation challenges, including one related to disagreements about oversight roles and responsibilities between the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the military departments. Senior DOD leadership has not fully addressed these disagreements. As a result, DOD is at risk of not achieving an effective balance between oversight and accountability and efficient program management.

Why GAO Did This Study

Amid concerns about the ability of DOD's acquisition process to keep pace with evolving threats, Congress included numerous reforms in recent National Defense Authorization Acts that could help to streamline acquisition oversight and field capabilities faster.

GAO was asked to examine DOD's efforts to implement these reforms. This report addresses (1) the progress DOD has made implementing selected oversight reforms related to major defense acquisition programs; (2) how DOD has used middle-tier acquisition pathways; and (3) challenges DOD faces related to reform implementation. GAO reviewed five reforms: milestone decision authority designation; cost, fielding, and performance goals; independent technical risk assessments; restructuring of acquisition oversight offices; and middle-tier acquisition. GAO analyzed applicable statutes and implementing guidance, collected information from DOD about the number and types of middle-tier acquisition programs, reviewed relevant documentation, and interviewed DOD officials.


GAO is making four recommendations, including that DOD should identify the types of information needed to select and oversee middle-tier acquisition programs consistently, and clarify the roles and responsibilities of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the military departments for acquisition oversight. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations and described actions planned to address them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment to identify in final guidance the types of business case elements potential middle-tier acquisition programs should develop and decision makers should consider at program initiation to assess the soundness of programs' business cases, including whether programs are well positioned to meet statutory objectives. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation. In December 2019, Congress passed the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Section 837 in the Conference Report accompanying the Act requires DOD to submit a report to the congressional defense committees no later than December 15, 2019, that includes guidance on the use of middle tier acquisition authority. Further, it stated that the guidance shall include the business case elements required by an acquisition program using the middle tier acquisition authority and the metrics required to assess the performance of such a program. DOD issued DOD Instruction 5000.90, Operation of the Middle Tier of Acquisition, effective December 30, 2019. The instruction identifies the entrance documentation required for middle tier acquisition programs. Specifically, rapid prototyping middle tier programs that meet the definition of a major system are required to have a signed acquisition decision memorandum by the decision authority, an approved requirement, an acquisition strategy, and a cost estimate. Major rapid fielding middle tier acquisition programs are required to have these same documents, as well as a lifecycle sustainment plan. Non-major rapid prototyping and rapid fielding programs are only required to have an acquisition decision memorandum signed by the decision authority.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment to determine and identify in final guidance for middle-tier acquisition programs the metrics that will be used to assess the performance of middle-tier acquisition programs across the military departments, including whether programs are meeting statutory objectives. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation, and stated that it planned to determine performance metrics in coordination with its release of its final guidance on middle-tier programs, which DOD expected to release in late 2019. In January 2020, USD(A&S) submitted a report to Congress identifying metrics for middle-tier acquisition programs that it stated were regularly used in governance meetings. These metrics included tracking whether the planned schedule was compliant with statutory objectives to field capabilities within 5 years, assessing current technology readiness levels against identified thresholds, and tracking planned operational demonstration dates. This report also used the metrics to assess middle-tier acquisition programs as of October 2019. In March 2020, USD(A&S) used these metrics to assess middle-tier acquisition programs for its bi-annual review. As of February 2021, USD(A&S) had also developed an approach that required military departments to rate their larger middle-tier acquisition programs for using these metrics for meetings of the Deputy's Monthly Action Group. While DOD has yet to include these metrics in final guidance because it continues to work on broader efforts across its Adaptive Acquisition Framework to identify metrics for all pathways, the development and usage of the metrics identified in the January 2020 congressional report will help improve the consistency of oversight for some of the department's largest acquisition programs. As this action meets the intent of our recommendation, we consider this recommendation to be implemented.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should ensure that a comprehensive framework that clarifies the roles and responsibilities of the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the military departments for acquisition oversight is communicated by senior leadership. This framework should be detailed enough to address areas of continued disagreement among key stakeholders and serve to inform the department's revisions of other acquisition policies such as DOD Instruction 5000.02. (Recommendation 3)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation and stated that these roles and responsibilities will be finalized through the issuance of chartering directives and updated acquisition policy. In December 2019, the Deputy Secretary of Defense issued a memorandum that stated the department had addressed all open issues related to acquisition roles and responsibilities, including those related to independent technical risk assessments and middle tier acquisition programs. The memorandum stated that the Chief Management Office is responsible for taking actions necessary to implement the direction, including updating and integrating responsibilities into chartering directives for review and approval no later than January 31, 2020. Further, all DOD components and military departments will update all applicable instructions and directives, consistent with the guidance no later than January 31, 2020 as well.
Department of Defense The Secretary of Defense should develop a plan for how the department will assess the effect of recent acquisition reforms, including identifying who will be responsible for the assessment and what data will be needed. (Recommendation 4)
Closed – Implemented
DOD concurred with this recommendation. In December 2019, Congress took additional action. The Conference Report accompanying the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act required DOD to submit a report with the budget for fiscal year 2021 on the progress of implementing acquisition reform initiatives. In response, DOD provided a report to Congress in March 2020 that includes how the Secretary will identify, quantify, assess and manage program risk, describes changes to DOD's data collection and sharing processes, and describes new acquisition frameworks to be implemented. In February 2022, DOD took further action to address the remaining elements of this recommendation. Specifically, the Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition approved a plan that explained how DOD would assess the effects of the acquisition reforms GAO reviewed in its report. For each reform, the plan generally identified the office responsible for assessing the reform and provided examples of the types of metrics that would be evaluated and the source of data for the evaluation.

Full Report

Office of Public Affairs


AccountabilityAcquisition reformDecision makingDefense acquisition programsMilitary departmentsNational defenseProgram implementationProgram managementRisk assessmentWeapon systems