The risks of thinking big

There’s no crime in thinking big. However, as seen in the case of the Army’s gargantuan Future Combat Systems project, there are practical limits to how big a project can be — especially when it’s dependent on the delivery of several other big projects.

FCS is an example of how the Defense Department’s culture of procurement and development can collapse on itself. It’s understood that FCS requires creating something new, pushing technology beyond its previous limits; that’s what much of defense systems development is about. Whether it’s breathing new life into an old concept, such as the projects covered in our cover story on satellite alternatives (Page 8) or the remote sensors being used by the Homeland Security Department’s virtual fence and FCS (Page 24), everything DOD does with technology pushes it to its limits. Risk is inherent in pushing limits.

But the traditional approach to developing an all encompassing set of solutions simultaneously within one program doesn’t work on the scale of FCS. At its heart, FCS is a software project — a really big software project, as David Perera reveals in his story this month (Page 6). It’s not a syndrome unique to DOD or even government. In the corporate world, there are innumerable examples of massive projects reach exceeded their grasps, either failing utterly or far surpassing their expected costs.

Even the smallest projects can fail when saddled with boilerplate procurement practices based more on tradition than regulation. It doesn’t have to be this way. As Chris Gunderson, research associate professor of information science at the Naval Postgraduate School and principal investigator for the Netcentric Certification Office and W2COG Initiatives, said during a panel I moderated at the recent FOSE conference in April, “There’s nothing in the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] that says you have to be stupid.”

There’s plenty of room for creativity in how procurement is done, for example, to expand on approaches such as the ones used in the revamped Joint Tactical Radio System program we covered in depth last month, or by the Defense Information Systems Agency under Lt. Gen. Charles Croom’s leadership to reduce requirements in exchange for faster, cheaper delivery on projects.

But that means being willing to accept the risk of change in addition to the risks normally attending large projects. It takes courage to step up and accept the risks of change to increase the chance of completing projects successfully and quickly.

About the Author

Sean Gallagher is senior contributing editor for Defense Systems.

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