“We’re Going to Be Learning Forever”
New Air Force Acquisition Chief Andrew Hunter plans to leverage his rapid acquisition experience for rapidly delivering software capability. He advises contracting professionals to remain flexible, take reasonable risks, keep an open mind, and approach innovation and change as opportunities to learn.

Hunter was sworn in as Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics on Feb. 7, 2022. As the Air Force acquisition chief, Hunter leads $54 billion a year in research, development, and acquisition across more than 550 programs.

Previously, Hunter served in national security positions at the Pentagon, the House Armed Services Committee, and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a think tank in Washington, DC. 

Notably, Hunter was chief of staff from 2011 to 2012 for Ashton Carter and Frank Kendall when each served as un-der secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, a predecessor post for today’s acquisition and sustainment position. Kendall now is secretary of the Air Force.

In 2013 and 2014, Hunter directed the Pentagon’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, leading efforts to quickly field intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities and destroy Syrian chemical weapons. The cell achieved the first-ever Navy shipboard deployment of an Army mobile chemical weapons neutralizing system in 2014. Adapting existing systems to new uses or platforms is “the way rapid acquisition works,” Hunter said at the time.

To enable innovation, Hunter favors combining personnel from different professions. “Bringing people from the requirements community, the budget community, the acquisition community, and the operational community together to exchange information in really short intervals of time . . . has had a big payoff in the rapid acquisition world,” Hunter said during a CSIS defense innovation event in March 2020.

Both Hunter and William LaPlante, the nominee to become the next under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, plan to focus on software acquisition. “We need to approach the acquisition of software and soft-ware-intensive systems, which are providing many of the cutting-edge new capabilities for our military, from a different vantage point with alternative approaches and alternative tools,” Hunter told the Senate Armed Services Committee during his Oct. 5, 2021, confirmation hearing. 

“We must improve our ability to acquire software and software-intensive systems,” LaPlante echoed to the committee during his March 22, 2022, confirmation hearing. LaPlante held the Air Force acquisition chief post from 2014 to 2017. 

In March, when NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad, MBA, CAE, CTP spoke with him, Hunter was performing the duties of un-der secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, pending the confirmation of nominee LaPlante for that position. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Kraig Conrad: Can you share more on how the unique needs of software acquisition change throughout the contracting lifecycle and expand on how the primacy of software will alter contracts and the skills needed to get them accomplished? 

Andrew Hunter: I’ve looked at this prior to my current government service and identified what I characterize as barriers and enablers to good acquisition of software and software-intensive systems. 
One of the fundamental challenges is that technology moves so quickly that you can’t necessarily sit down and plan out exactly what capabilities you’ll need to have in your system over the Department’s 10- to 20-year timeframe. In the world of software and software-intensive systems, you might have a pretty good vision for your next six months or your next year. But after that, the crystal ball gets a little foggy. The world of software can change in the space of one to two years.

What that means for contracting professionals is that we have to accept, deal with, and incorporate a more flexible approach to establishing requirements, doing market research, and evaluating proposals. In some cases, there isn’t as much specificity of exactly what we’re going to need to do, so we need the flexibility to go where the market leads and where the user requirements are going to take us.

A lot of the tools already exist in our contracting system that allow us to take a more indefinite approach. We have different contract types and processes, but implementing them in a way that is purpose-built for software is still relatively new. I am encouraged by all the work happening within the Department with things like the software acquisition pathway, but it’s still a learning process. And to some extent that will continue forever because the world of software just isn’t going to settle in 10 years’ time. It’s going to continue to be very dynamic. We’re going to be learning forever. 

KC: You mentioned the software pathway in the adaptive acquisition framework. Is it adequate for the software needs of the Air Force and the Defense Department? Are future changes needed? 

AH: My current assessment is that it is working well. We have over 30 programs currently in the pathway and more that will be joining in the near future. No one has to use that pathway; it’s a choice. In most cases, they are finding utility in it and that’s an indicator of success to me. As I was saying about our contracting approach, we’ll probably never be fully finished learning. My hope is that we will continue to find ways to shape the pathway to meet the needs of programs that are software-intensive. Acquisition success can only be measured over a period of several years, so it may be a little early to declare victory. But I am encouraged by the activity I’ve seen.

It’s also important to note that just because you’re not in the software pathway doesn’t mean you aren’t buying a software-intensive system. We buy many, many software-intensive systems in other pathways. Critical to the Department’s success is the ability to enable good software acquisition in whichever pathway you’re using. The software acquisition pathway is purpose-built, but we also are trying to make sure that we have the right tools and flexibility across all the pathways to ensure we do a good job buying software. 

KC: In this issue of the magazine, we also spoke to your predecessor as Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, Will Roper. He detailed three key elements for innovation in large organizations: communication, culture, and cohesion. What do you view as your key levers for innovation? 

AH: I will start with one that is above all others: user engagement. I think it’s true for all of acquisition, but it is especially critical when it comes to software. Ultimately, software has to meet the user’s needs, and in the Department of Defense, the user is the warfighter. We have to be closely engaged with our user community as we go through the acquisition and contracting process at every stage to ensure we have the right requirements definition, contractual tools, task orders, contract line item numbers, contract data requirement lists, and so on. When the user comes back to us and says, “We need another feature or interface, or we need something fixed, it’s not working right,” we must have the tools contractually in place to meet those needs. That flexibility has to be built in with industry. 

My overarching principle is that we have to engage deeply, closely, regularly, and intimately with the user community. That is pretty challenging in the acquisition context. Sometimes our users are on the other side of the planet and there’s a logistical or communications challenge; they may be in a hostile environment. It can be difficult to ground our work in user engagement, but we must do our best to meet them and gather their needs.

The principles that Will outlines are very supportive of that mindset, culture, and the communication that’s really crucial. 

KC: With the emphasis you place on these new approaches, what new or different skills will the contracting corps need to have?

AH: I’m a fundamental believer that to be a good buyer, you really have to know a lot about what you’re buying. If you’re going to be a good buyer of software, you have to know what it takes to produce good software and what it takes to write software. We need contracting professionals who understand the software ecosystem in which they’re operating – what they’re buying, how to buy it, and what the industry is incentivized to deliver. Contracting professionals must be able to leverage the right incentives to get the outcome the government wants. That’s true for all acquisition.

In the case of software, we are increasingly growing a cadre of software experts who really understand all of those key elements. The Defense Acquisition University (DAU) is helping us with credentials, for example, on how to apply other transaction authority to contracting for software and conducting associated workshops for the workforce. DAU also has a credential for agile software development. I know we’ve also been working with NCMA on meeting an established standard, so that we can define the key skills and knowledge required for certification. 

All of these things are helping ensure we can get the workforce where we need them to be. 

KC: Having a common language is certainly a starting point. You mentioned OTs and you have been quoted saying that there is a sound policy in the Air Force for using other transaction authority and non-FAR methods. But these rely on a skilled workforce and their experience using them. We don’t believe the experience is quite yet widespread across the Defense Department, and some fear OTs might be getting a bit overused. How will you boost that other transaction experience and capability for contracting professionals who are and will be called upon to serve as OT agreements officers? 

AH: When Congress opened the aperture on OTs and strongly encouraged the Department to use them more often, there was a bit of a scramble at first. It’s been somewhat of an experimentation phase, and I think that’s largely to the good. It may have led to some false starts but that’s okay; you learn from them and move on. I think we’ve reached a stage of maturity now where we are getting a better sense of where OTs are working and where they might not necessarily give us much more than our traditional contract approaches. 

In some cases you may still choose that option, but you might also find a FAR contract may be just right. I think we’re narrowing in on where OTs are providing value. I see them being incredibly helpful, for example, when you need to work across a broad swath of industry to develop a standard or come up with an architecture such as a modular open systems approach. OTs can be a good vehicle for getting industry together to work collaboratively on a problem set that would be challenging to do on a different mechanism. The growth of OTs is primarily because we’ve learned that they’re good tools for a lot of the work we have to do. 

I think we’re doing pretty well in matching up our tools with what we need to use them for, and we are working to make sure we get the right scale. When we started down the OT pathway, the Army was the expert, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was pretty good at it, and there were small pockets in the Air Force that knew how to do OTs. Now, we have gotten to a place where there’s a lot more expertise across the government.

DAU has developed curricula, and has a whole new concept for how it does business. A lot of work can be done online and in relatively discrete modules even while you’re still working full-time. This new model has really changed the scale equation. DAU can reach people all over the world, and we are giving them key skills they need to be successful with buying software and OT contracting. That’s been a real breakthrough. 

KC: Do you have any advice for those who want to prepare themselves for the common use of digital engineering and digital acquisition? Any advice for those looking to help increase government efforts to nurture new industries in innovative technologies? 

AH: Approach the whole problem set as an opportunity to learn. I just started this job [performing the duties of USD(A&S)], and in the last six or seven weeks, I feel like every day has been an opportunity to learn. Every meeting I find fascinating because I’m learning something new. 

Engage with industry and listen to their feedback on best practices. That doesn’t mean we always have to agree, but I think there’s a lot to be learned by engaging and listening. 

As I’ve emphasized already, flexibility must be a key element of our approach to software. Sometimes in the contracting world, flexibility is not a good thing. In this case, it is a good thing. We have to be willing to take reasonable risks. The quality of the workforce is everything because taking reasonable risk is hard. It requires judgment, something that gets developed over time and through experience. Being able to take reasonable risk requires engaging the whole team. 

And I talked about user engagement. You have to be willing to bring people into the conversation from the user community, from industry, and from the budget and sustainment side. With software, we run into a challenge on funding: How do we distinguish among what’s production, what’s sustainment, and what’s development? It’s often all one thing. You have to understand that as you’re engaging with the stakeholders in the contracting process. Buying software takes the whole team to make good decisions. 

We’ve tried to write good processes for engaging in software acquisition. Folks need to study up on it, understand it, implement it, and give us feedback so we can change things that may not be working. 

KC: Do you have any final thoughts about how our industry and government contracting corps can help support your priorities? 

AH: I think we still have room to grow on thinking through the business model for innovation within the software context. In the commercial software world, for example, you see a heavy reliance on licensing as a way for companies to achieve a return on investment. Historically, we’ve had a different model. We would pay for research and development, and then for production. There wasn’t a sense of licensing technology and paying over time.
Licensing is a fundamentally different business model for how companies achieve return on the investments they make in hu-man capital and technology to become really good at software. I’m not saying we have to wholesale change everything we do in government, but we do need to understand this is a different business model and adapt where it’s critical to the success of our programs. 

I would highlight commercial solutions openings (CSOs) as one of a growing set of alternative business models that we are leveraging for software-intensive systems. CSOs are not the full answer; it’s going to be more than one thing. But it is a good example of where we’re adapting the business model to meet the different nature of software development. That’s something I think we will continue to work on. 

KC: We very much appreciate your time, Secretary Hunter. If there’s anything at all that the NCMA community can do for you, as you implement this important agenda, we are very grateful for any opportunity to serve. CM.