Lessons Observed versus Lessons Learned in Federal Acquisition

In 15 years of Federal Acquisition experience we continue to observe the same lessons in our processes and operational shortfalls.  Those lessons become significant limitations and risk to our Operational responders.

First, it is important to define the difference between lessons learned versus lessons observed.  A lesson learned in our operational system is a defined shortfall in an after-action report with a systematically developed solution(s) to ensure that this shortfall is eliminated.  A lesson observed is shortfall that continually shows up in a series of after-action reports, and no organization takes ownership to eliminate the shortfall.  A good example of a lesson observed is the inability for state, local and federal responders to operate over a common radio platform.  I feel confident that the next large-scale event that occurs in the United States will have a section in the after-action report regarding this shortfall.

Now, returning back to Federal Acquisition, our technology development integration into the operational world (from Warfighters abroad to first responders locally) has continued to observe many of the same lessons.  A key lesson observed is acquisition of the latest technologies outpaces our ability to integrate them into our operational construct.  Without a full understanding of what a new technology’s capability is and its applied significance to the work at hand, we cannot have a clear understanding of how we should react to its outputs.

A chilling illustration of this challenge is the use of a new technology called radar in World War II:

Unit s/n 012 was at Opana PointHawaii on the morning of the seventh of December 1941 manned by two privates, George Elliot and Joseph Lockard. That morning the set was supposed to be shut down, but the soldiers decided to get additional training time since the truck scheduled to take them to breakfast was late. At 7:02 they detected the Japanese aircraft approaching Oahu at a distance of 130 miles (210 km) and Lockard telephoned the information center at Fort Shafter and reported “Large number of planes coming in from the north, three points east”. The operator taking his report passed on the information repeating that the operator emphasized he had never seen anything like it, and it was “an awful big flight.”

The report was passed on to an inexperienced and incompletely trained officer, Kermit Tyler, who had arrived only a week earlier. He thought they had detected a flight of B-17s arriving that morning from the US. There were only six B-17s in the group, so this did not account for the large size of the plot. The officer had little grasp of the technology, the radar operators were unaware of the B-17 flight (nor its size), and the B-17’s had no IFF (Identification friend or foe) system, nor any alternative procedure for identifying distant friendlies as the British had developed during the Battle of Britain. The raid on Pearl Harbor started 55 minutes later, and signaled the United States‘ formal entry into World War II a day later.

The radar operators also failed to communicate the northerly bearing of the inbound flight. The US fleet instead was fruitlessly searching to the southwest of Hawaii, believing the attack to have been launched from that direction. In retrospect this may have been fortuitous, since they would have met the same fate as the ships in Pearl Harbor had they attempted to engage the vastly superior Japanese carrier fleet, with enormous casualties.

After the Japanese attack, the RAF agreed to send Watson-Watt to the United States to advise the military on air defense technology. In particular Watson-Watt directed attention to the general lack of understanding at all levels of command of the capabilities of radar- with it often being regarded as a freak gadget “producing snap observations on targets which may or may not be aircraft.” General Gordon P. Saville, director of Air Defense at the Army Air Force headquarters referred to the Watson-Watt report as “a damning indictment of our whole warning service”.[1]

Because our Federal Acquisition process can take 10+ years to go from concept to fielded capability, the technical and operational communities have a tendency to procure versus go through the requirements/acquisition rigors to ensure we provide true utility versus “something” new.  To that end, we are in serious danger in our current Federal Acquisition approaches to observe yet another lesson of “a damning indictment of our whole warning service.”

A Path Forward

Advanced Technology Demonstrations (ATDs) are a good way to bridge the gap between the operational needs and the acquisition rigors as they pull in the warfighter community and the requirements/joint combat developers into a project in a meaningful way.  The ATD process as currently structured can provide logical feedback mechanisms to the science and technology community while providing an initial capability that warfighters can actively use within their current missions.  Further, the operational units will have worked with the ATD management team to ensure the new tools are integrated into their current or even adjusted concepts of operation.  To that end, we eliminate the fiasco that was our radar systems at Pearl Harbor and ensure that we are not continuing to observe lessons learned of missions past.


Written by Chris Russell chris.russell@globalsyseng.com

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