Get to Know the Middle Tier of Awesome…Er, Acquisition

Now more than ever, the Pentagon needs a faster way to produce innovative capabilities for today and tomorrow. Luckily, it’s got one: the Middle Tier of Acquisition, or MTA, whose track record is so positive and its potential so great, we’ve taken to calling it the Middle Tier of…Awesomeness. We want all acquisition professionals know about and use this super-powered pathway.

Let’s start with the basics. Forged by Congress in 2016 and implemented by the Defense Department in 2018, MTA gives defense acquisition pros two ways to move faster than usual. The first is a rapid prototyping path that can help assess the usefulness of a developing technology or tailor commercial products for military use. The second is a rapid fielding path to answer battlefield needs, whether through brand-new gear or modular upgrades to existing stuff. Both rely on streamlined processes and delegated decisions. Equally important, MTA drives critical thinking across the acquisition, requirements, and budget communities—no more monotonous use of an outdated playbook.

So far, more than 100 acquisition programs have used MTA. Most are in the Pentagon’s smallest acquisition category, while 10 percent are in the mid-sized bucket. But many of these programs make important contributions to larger-dollar efforts, such as upgrades to the B-52 and F-22 aircraft, hypersonic and other missile programs, and the Protected Tactical SATCOM and Tranche 1 Tracking Layer satellite efforts. 

The Air Force was a fast adopter and is the most prodigious user of the pathway, with roughly 40 percent of all programs and majority of the funding. But examples of MTA awesomeness are all around us, including: 

  • Next Generation Squad Weapons. MTA’s streamlined requirements process knocked two or three years off the Army’s development of powerful new squad weapons compared to the regular process.
  • F-15EX. The Air Force fielded a squadron’s worth of upgraded fighter aircraft in less than three years, a feat that would likely have taken a decade using older methods. 
  • Angry Kitten Combat Pods. In just 30 sorties over two weeks, the Air Force executed an operational assessment that “dramatically shaped the direction of electronic warfare” in the service.
  • Wideband Satellite–Expeditionary. The Marines saved a year by developing and deploying commercial technology instead of executing a typical acquisition program.
  • Robotic Combat Vehicle. The Army has repeatedly upgraded the modularized autonomous platform, giving it sensor and networking advances and continuous agile software upgrades—all of which would have required multiple lengthy follow-on programs under the traditional approach.
  • Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle. After feedback from industry, the Army was able to pivot and quickly update its acquisition plan with more realistic requirements that will surely prevent reoccurrence of past programs where billions were wasted before program cancellation. The OMFV strategy shift is an awesome alternative to the expensive, delayed, and doomed Comanche helicopter debacle.

Some resist the awesome

Despite MTA’s successes, the pathway has its critics. Some see it as a loophole for programs to circumvent oversight authorities. But MTA programs report status regularly and use the regular acquisition-approval process. Indeed, the DoD Inspector General’s Sept. 2021 audit report found that “internal controls over DoD management, oversight, and execution of programs in the MTA pathway were effective as they applied to the audit objectives.” Pretty sure “effective” is IG-speak for “awesome.”

Others perceive MTA as insufficiently rigorous in its program analysis, strategies, and execution. But while its statute encourages tailored strategies and speed, neither comes at the cost of rigor. Don’t take our word for it. While IG audit reports typically highlight concerns and “opportunities for improvement,” this one’s overall finding was that “DoD acquisition personnel effectively leveraged the MTA pathway for all 11 programs we reviewed, to rapidly develop prototypes and field proven technologies to the warfighter as intended.” OK, so they didn’t use the word awesome, but they totally could have.

MTA doesn’t fit the traditional mold of acquisition programs that are managed strictly via cost, schedule, and performance baselines. This seems to cause heartburn with some in DoD and Congress. They seem to misunderstand that the nature of rapid prototyping, like commercial product development, is more fluid and iterative. As has been demonstrated for decades, innovation and technology development is not a linear, predictive process. It is unrealistic to attempt to detail lifecycle plans for what is intended to be a process geared towards learning and experimentation.  

Unfortunately, this is not well understood and there has been a consistent push to add time and complexity to the process. Some senior officials have sought to impose additional documents, reviews, and oversight while some merely want to replicate legacy documents, processes, and thinking. These unhelpful changes risk transforming the Middle Tier of Awesome into the Mediocre Tier of Awful.

This four-year-old pathway needs protection against powerful bureaucratic forces who seek to return to the outmoded acquisition environment, against those who want rapid programs to spend more time studying the problem, writing documentation, and navigating endless reviews. DoD and Congressional leaders must press the defenders of the status quo to transform their processes and culture to align with rapid and iterative acquisitions. If these key stakeholders are unwilling or unable to change how they do business, they must be replaced by those who can embrace speed with rigor. 

Conclusion

MTA accelerates learning and focuses leaders and practitioners to identify opportunities to lean processes, tailor documents, and rethink strategies. It is not a radical, high-risk approach to acquisition. Successful MTA programs will often turn into major capability and software acquisition pathways to fully scale and advance their capabilities.

Today, MTA programs remain a tiny fraction of the Pentagon’s overall investment budget, but they represent a large slice of the recent success stories in DoD acquisition – especially in maximizing experimentation, competition, and rapid fielding. If the U.S. military is to keep up with China, far more defense acquisition programs must move toward MTA and pathways like it.

Pete Modigliani is a Defense Acquisition Lead at the MITRE Corporation. A former Air Force program manager and Asst. Vice President at Alion, he champions strategic acquisition reforms. 

Dan Ward is a Senior Principal Systems Engineer at the MITRE Corporation. A retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, he is the author of LIFT, The Simplicity Cycle, and F.I.R.E. 

Matt MacGregor is an Acquisition SME at the MITRE Corporation. A retired military and civil service program manager, he served in several acquisition leadership roles during his career. 

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Dan Ward Pete Modigliani and Matt MacGregor