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Agile acquisition - shortening equipment lead times through choosing the right approach

General Sir Mike Jackson and David BrookPA Consulting Group World Defence Systems
1 May 2008

The last decade has seen a shift away from the industrial warfare of the Cold War to an environment where coalition-based, counter-insurgency operations are increasingly important. The threat is often unclear, asymmetric and constantly changing - requiring the Armed Forces to be flexible and quick to respond. The consequence of this can be seen in the recent surge in the numbers of UORs, as military equipment is quickly upgraded to neutralise and counter new threats. However, if so much additional activity is required to provide the front line with what they need, when they need it, this calls into question the efficacy of the core acquisition process. A key issue is that the length of time taken for new capability to move through the acquisition process, from the articulation of the requirement to the point where it can be used by the front line, is often too long. Indeed, there is a growing aspiration to significantly reduce, even halve, acquisition

The impact of lengthy acquisition times is two-fold: first, legacy equipment needs to be upgraded to fill the gap between what is needed and what is available until the core acquisition process delivers (hence UORs). Second, in the time taken to field new capability, the threat has evolved, resulting in modifications to the requirement which, in turn, result in more UORs or further delays into service, or both. It is clear that there are considerable benefits in shortening the acquisition process, including:

  • faster delivery of the capability needed

  • more current capability as the period from specification to delivery is much reduced

  • a likely reduction in delivery cost.

It could be argued that the mixture of CADMID-based and UOR acquisition provides the best of both worlds, with rapid capability upgrades via UORs underpinned by the more measured CADMID process - so what is the problem? The issue is that in many cases neither approach fully meets the need in today’s military environments. CADMID-based acquisition offers rigour and scrutiny at the expense of speed, not only because the approval process is lengthy but because capability requirements tend to creep upwards, dragging cost and timescales along with them. On the other hand, with the UOR approach, timescales are critical, and therefore many aspects such as competition, scrutiny, support solution, coherence and interoperability are not fully addressed in the interests of speed. This generates problems and cost downstream when UORs are maintained in service as part of the core equipment programme. Ideally what is needed is the best of both worlds - speed with appropriate rigour and coherence.

The challenge is that the acquisition process is required to deliver an enormous range of equipment and systems, from rifles to nuclear submarines, each with its own individual issues. One of the key lessons from years of experience with the CADMID cycle is that one approach to acquisition is not suitable for all circumstances. There is increasingly widespread recognition that what is needed is a range of approaches ranging from swift acquisition of existing equipment off-the-shelf  to large, strategic, research-led programmes and everything in between - in other words, an agile acquisition process is required.

The key issues to be addressed to reduce acquisition timescales do not revolve around the types of approach available - COTs, MOTs, incremental acquisition and so on - as these are now largely understood. Rather, it is about choosing which approach to adopt in a timely way.

A small number of clear criteria need to be developed to drive decision making on the optimal acquisition approach.

Clarity will improve speed of decision making, which is vital in a more rapid acquisition process. The type of criteria needed include:

  • Urgency - this should be the principal driver of decision making and the process that supports it, keeping at the ‘front of mind’ the key objective - to provide military capability when it is needed.

  • Current and planned capability - consideration of this aspect will determine the size of the capability gap and whether an upgrade of existing capability is required, something new is needed or indeed whether the effect required can be produced through other, non-equipment solutions. The capability management process recently adopted by the MOD includes a step to measure and ‘baseline’ capability, which should be beneficial in reaching a quick decision.

  • Technology maturity and readiness - if the technology already exists then this points towards an off-the-shelf approach; lower levels of maturity point to an incremental or hybrid approach.

  • Interoperability and coherence - if this is not a strong requirement then this opens up more off-the-shelf options, but the more important interoperability and coherence become, the more it points to a hybrid or incremental approach.

  • Market access and industrial implications - clearly there are some areas (as set out in the Defence Industrial Strategy) where national interests limit the acquisition options available that need to be taken into account.

A rapid assessment of these criteria can more quickly lead to a decision on the most suitable approach and the timescales.

Equally important is the timing of when the decision on acquisition approach is made. In the current CADMID process, the acquisition approach is proposed at Initial Gate, refined during the assessment phase and endorsed at Main Gate - a significant structural delay is therefore built into the process. However, it wastes both time and money to, for example, spend four years in the run up to Main Gate only to decide to procure a system that was available off-the-shelf. Unless the CADMID cycle is to be replaced with something new (perhaps a good subject for future debate) this decision should be taken at Initial Gate to allow both MOD and industry to configure and align themselves to deliver as early as possible.

Changing the acquisition approach also needs to be underpinned by a significant change in mindset. It is the agreed in-service date that needs to drive the approvals process and decision making - time must become king.

General Sir Mike Jackson is Senior Advisor and Chairman of the Defence Advisory Board at PA Consulting Group, and former Chief of the General Staff.

David Brook is a senior consultant in PA’s Defence & Security practice.

Article contribution also received from Steve Kershaw.

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