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Interview: David M. Van Buren

Acting Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition

David M. Van Buren is the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, Washington, D.C. He is the Air Force’s service acquisition executive, responsible for all Air Force research, development and non-space acquisition activities. He provides direction, guidance, and supervision of all matters pertaining to the formulation, review, approval, and execution of acquisition plans, policies, and programs. Van Buren directs $30 billion in annual investments that include major programs like the KC-X, F-22A, F-35, C-17, and munitions, as well as capability areas such as information technology and command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems. He formulates and executes the $210 billion Air Force investment strategy to acquire systems and support services to provide combat capability to joint warfighting commanders.

Van Buren has more than 30 years of acquisition experience in the Air Force, large defense corporations, and private equity- owned small and medium aerospace and commercial high-technology firms. These technology areas include hyperspectral imaging; laser communications; alternative power sources; avionics; high-speed processing; compound semi-conductors; and satellite power systems. In 2005, he was also a member of the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment Study Senior Review Team as its only small business representative.

Prior to entering public service, and for the past 15 years, Van Buren primarily worked as an executive for numerous private equity-owned high-technology firms. He directed Raytheon’s compound semi-conductor activity, and successfully transitioned TECSTAR, a small business, to being named one of the top 50 space manufacturers in the world by Space News. Van Buren was vice president and deputy program manager for the B-2 bomber at Northrop Corporation. He was involved in the transition to production, flight test, first flight, and day-to-day program management activities. At Lockheed, he was a project manager on several classified airborne platforms, including the F-117A, and satellite platforms. Prior to his tenure at Lockheed, he served on active duty in the Air Force for nine years, including two tours in Southeast Asia, ending his career as a captain. His last Air Force assignment was as program manager in the AIM-9 Sidewinder Program Office. Van Buren recently sat down with Defense Media Network senior writer John D. Gresham for this wide-ranging interview..

John D. Gresham: How would you describe your position and what you oversee for the U.S. Air Force?

David Van Buren: I think it’s probably important to talk about the overall acquisition situation in the context of the world that we operate in. We are very mindful of the current state of the economy and the need to be frugal, the need to make sure that we treat every dollar that we spend as if it were coming out of our own pockets. The good news is that the people in Air Force acquisition are very mindful of that every day. There is a process of continuous improvement and we’re trying to make sure that we exceed the rightful expectations that are out there – of the citizens, the taxpayers, of the Hill, of our DoD [Department of Defense] leadership, and of the warfighter. That gets into how effective we are in the price we pay for the products that are needed by the warfighter, and how quickly we get those products out to the warfighter. We appreciate and understand the world that’s outside of us and are doing our level best to always do better. It’s been stated by the DoD leadership, by the secretary of defense, the deputy secretary, by the under secretary for acquisitions, technology, and logistics [AT&L], and by the Air Force leadership that there are expectations of what we need to do, given the outside world. We are trying to exceed their expectations. I think that’s a responsibility that we carry every day when we come into our job, and I feel good about that.

Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your upbringing, and how you got to this place and position?

First of all, I’m the son of a music professor from Rhode Island. After I went to college, I was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. Air Force. Along the way I was the beneficiary of a great deal of education that the Air Force provided me, such as contracting, manufacturing, and quality assurance classes, and a program called Education With Industry, where the Air Force gives you to an industrial partner for a year so that you can learn and be more effective when you come back to be a program manager. This education put a large number of building blocks in my career when I was a program manager in the Air Force and then when I went into industry. Frankly, the real reason I wanted to be here was to see if I could help in any way, and pay back to the Air Force the investment that they had made in me 30 years ago. For me, it’s a privilege to try to give back to the Air Force and the country because of the investment they made in the building blocks of my career.

So why, in the middle of an election year (2008), would you leave a nice private-industry job to come into government?

I think it was a calling. I was asked in 2005 to participate in a DAPA [Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment] study, which was an endeavor by the department at that time to see what things we could do better in the acquisition area. Jacques Gansler and John Hamre, among others, were also on the team, two people [who] certainly the country has a lot of respect and admiration for. When I had the opportunity to come back full time, I felt that the experience I received in the industrial world could help improve the way Air Force acquisition does its job.

A quick look at your résumé tells me that you got to work on some very interesting projects while you were out in the aerospace industry.

I did. I would say that I have two or three experiences that were probably the professional highlights of my career. Running your own company is an area where you learn how to take care of people, and learn about the importance of what you do, such that you have people, families that are depending upon the success of the company. I had one lady, a factory worker and single mother, come up to me in Los Angeles and put her arm around me and with tears in her eyes, she said, “Thank you very much for caring about my family and what you do.” That was one of the best moments of my career in private industry. I’d say another important moment was when I saw the first B-2 fly in ’89. I was in charge of that first flight preparation with Maj. Gen. Claude M. Bolton, who was a colonel at the time in the B-2 program office. I was at Northrop at the time and to see that plane fly for the first time was amazing.

You got to work on the B-2 Spirit and the F-117 Nighthawk programs, along with some of the state-of-the-art remote-sensing programs of the day. What did you learn while working on those programs and what were the lessons you got out of those experiences that apply to what you are doing now?

I remember in my first job at Lockheed when I saw the F-117 long before it was publicly known. I think one of the greatest things about the F-117 program – and it fits with the affordability issue here and now – was that the Nighthawk program took a number of already developed subsystems, and was able to create a weapons system based on significant “knowns.” The F-117 was powered by the F-18’s F-404 engine at the time. What this did was reduce the overall program risk. It also reduced the cycle time of the development process. It created a perfectly great weapons system using those known subsystems. That may be a secret for today’s acquisition activity, in that you know if you have elements that you can bring into a weapons system that aren’t developed from scratch, or that aren’t being developed up through a long life cycle, you can create a more affordable product.

What did you see out in private industry, in terms of processes and systems, that you feel ought to be part of modern acquisitions programs that you work on today? You’ve obviously just talked about one, which is risk reduction using existing technology. What other things are you seeing out there?

I think that I was the real beneficiary in my first job with Lockheed Sunnyvale. At that time, they had a number of enormous programs that were national-level efforts. The Navy’s Fleet Ballistic Missile Program, for instance, is a long-term success story for the country. This program showed systems engineering capability to do all the proper trades, to look at technical readiness levels, manufacturing readiness levels, and to properly architect a program up front, as well as understand the risks, and do the risk reductions. I think that’s what we are trying to do right now in terms of our Acquisition Improvement Plan, which is to enhance our systems engineering capability within the Air Force so that we can walk down that path with a company truly understanding the risks of the program, and a better understanding of what’s ahead of us.

The last couple of decades seem to have created almost a perfect storm in acquisitions, not just in your service but defense-wide, that makes it difficult to run acquisitions from requirement to awards to management to initial operational capability (IOC). What do you feel are the factors that have created the environment that makes it so difficult to bring a new system into service?

For the most part, I left the large aerospace industry in ’92. That’s when I left Northrop and I took over my first company. From the days in which I was blessed with all the training and education that I had in the Air Force to the day I came into this building, I would say that we lost a lot of in-house “people-related” capability both in the technical area and in the contractual area. I say “contractual area” to include contracting, cost-price analysis, and program control, which deals with things like master-program scheduling and earned-value management systems. Part of our Acquisition Improvement Plan is to reinvigorate that skill set, capability, and competency. I think what we now realize in our Acquisition Improvement Plan is the real need to focus on the people, both in the skill sets and in our training of people. I went through the Air Force’s Education With Industry Program; we’re trying to revitalize that.

Acquisition also lost some of the basic structural elements of the process, not the process flow but technical specifications, reliability, and maintainability specifications to ensure a lower life-cycle cost. Some of those specifications were left by the wayside back in the early ’90s for the simplification of the process. In reality, maybe we tried to oversimplify it. It led to programs where you had lead system integrators who simply did not have the required competency to do the job, despite their size and workforce. Therefore, the Air Force might have allowed that balance between our industrial partners and the government to become a little bit out of balance.

And the Acquisition Improvement Plan is?

I’ve mentioned our leadership and how strongly they feel about the need for affordability in this day and age. The secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force chief of staff totally embody that. They feel that “Recapturing Acquisition Excellence” is one of the top five priorities of the Air Force. The instrument of Recapturing Acquisition Excellence has been the Acquisition Improvement Plan [AIP], which came out of a couple of studies, both internally and externally, that we had done in late 2008. There are five major initiatives of the Acquisition Improvement Plan.

The first AIP initiative is to revitalize the acquisition workforce. We were short of people, especially in contracting, cost-price analysis, systems engineering, and other really necessary skill sets. There was very strong support by Air Force and Department of Defense leadership to get the right numbers of personnel to ensure proper execution of the acquisition of tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars worth of equipment, goods, and services. We need to make sure that these folks have all the specific training to let them do the job that the country rightfully expects them to do.

The second AIP initiative is making sure that we had our programs properly budgeted. You can – especially in a day of decreasing budgets – spread the execution of that program over too long a time span. When you do that, in most cases, you will ultimately increase the total cost of the program. So maybe you don’t do that. Maybe you focus on getting your job done in a timely fashion, understanding that you may have to defer some new starts or something. But you go through that execution and you look at what is the proper economic order quantity, or EOQ, for that program. We’ve done that on some programs in the Air Force and have avoided problems because we properly executed the program, and had it done in the right amount of time, and therefore more cost effectively.

The third AIP initiative is improving [the] requirements definition process. That is, you can’t have an insatiable desire for having every bell and whistle on every weapons system that you would like. There has to be a cost-benefit trade. So, now in the Air Force, we have a balance from the acquisition community and the warfighter to make sure that we understand detailed requirements. We sign off on a requirements document to ensure that the acquirer and the requester are in harmony about what’s the right way to go about acquiring a weapons system.

The fourth AIP initiative is source-selection excellence. We have done a lot of work with independent review teams. The key is making sure that we have the proper balance of requirements, that we’re fair and transparent, and that industry knows what they’re going to be measured against. Industry deserves to know what they’re going to be measured against. We come out of the source selection with a transparent and open process and one that is looked at by everyone as being appropriate. We’re working very hard to make sure that this is done on the KC-X [aerial tanker program], which is our No. 1 acquisition priority. In FY 09, we had on the order of 150,000 contractual actions; we contracted for $67.2 billion, and we only had one protest sustained by the GAO [Government Accountability Office].

The fifth initiative of AIP is our organization structure. I like to refer to it as continual performance improvement. I once ran two very large gallium arsenide [GaAs] foundries making computer chips, solar cells, and other components. In that business, you have metrics that are really important to the business, like yield and cycle time. From an Air Force acquisition standpoint, yield is how cost-effective we’re being, the affordability issue. Cycle time is how quickly do we get that out to the warfighter: We measure all these things every day, and part of that cycle time is process, the process by which we go through all our steps. In Air Force acquisitions, we looked at our organization structure and said, “You know, we can improve the process by taking out some layers.” And we’re streamlining our activity. We created a larger number of program executive officers to mirror what both the Army and the Navy were doing, and created some additional program executive officers to streamline the flow of the weapons system development process. I think that’s been effective as well.

As you sit here today, can you just quickly lay out the top programs that you have to manage that have already been contracted, awarded, and working right now?

Clearly, KC-X is right at the top for the acquisition community. Our warfighters need a new tanker. We really want to do this source selection properly and embark onto the EMD [engineering and manufacturing development] development phase. The second one is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter [JSF]. Currently, as the acquisition executive, I am deeply involved in the program. We’ve gone through a major restructuring of the JSF leadership under Dr. Carter, which was appropriate. The third program is the F-22. The F-22 is a program in which we’re finishing the manufacturing of 186 aircraft now and we also have a modernization effort to make that aircraft effective and sustainable for a very long period of time. How effectively and timely we do that for the warfighter is something that is terribly important.

The fourth area is with our ISR [intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance] assets. We have two considerable ISR programs: the MQ-9 Reaper and RQ-4 Global Hawk. It has been proven that we’ve received a great amount of value out in the field from these platforms. The effort by which we manufacture these platforms and deliver them to the warfighter with the increasing need for intelligence capability is well known and well stated.

A fifth priority program is Air Force space assets, which are under the portfolio of Gary Payton, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs. He is making sure that communications, Global Positioning Satellite [GPS], and other satellite constellations and the launch of those vehicles are done to a level the country needs.

Are there any ground or support systems that you see out there in the next five to 10 years that are going to be big-ticket items that you’re going to have to go and deal with?

I think there’s a constant refresh, what’s called a “tech refresh,” that goes on with most of our command and control systems in our air operations centers. There is a constant look at mission control of the UAV fleet with regard to interoperability, open architecture, things of that nature. As the Air Force chief of staff has artfully said, “the Air Force is in this joint war fight. “Much of what we do in this ISR world is for our Army, Navy, and Marine brothers and sisters. That whole interoperability piece is something that’s terribly important, and has a lot to do with our tech refreshes of our command and control. A good example of that is the close relationship that we have with the Navy on their Broad Area Maritime Surveillance [BAMS] program, which is similar to our RQ-4 Global Hawk, and on the Army side with their MQ-1C Warrior, which again fits in between our two MQ-1 Predator and MQ-9 Reaper products.

Few people would question that the KC-X program has had its problems over the past 12 years or so since the requirement came to light. Yet it seems that sometime in the next few months, the Air Force is going to award a contract that’s going to stick. What did you guys do right this time that you did not do with previous tries at an award?

We’ve really endeavored to be fair, open, and transparent and we’ve stayed with our KC-X requirements. In this process, I think that the bidders understand how they’re being measured and appreciate the fact that the specificity of how this source selection will be evaluated will be very precise. We’ve gone back through this process and did not change the requirements. There was only one requirement that was deleted, as the secretary of the Air Force has testified to. We’ve really tried to walk down the path with industry and tried to be fair and balanced. I go through this job every day with the expectation of having a source selection and the KC-X be successful, and to get on with embarking on the development of that platform for the warfighter. We’re very focused on the need of the tanker for both the mobility Air Force component and the combat aircraft component.

Please talk to us a little bit about the Project Liberty MC-12W acquisition, the additional requirements that you added to that procurement, and how it’s worked out to be something of a model for you?

We have two activities that have been real successes. One is the MC-12 Project Liberty aircraft, delivered in seven months, and the other is the Battlefield Communications Node [BACN] program, delivered in nine months. Both take existing platforms, the King Air 350 in the case of the Liberty, and the Global Express aircraft in the case of the BACN payload, which will eventually evolve into Global Hawk Block 20. You can be timelier and reduce risk if you take “knowns” – in this case aircraft platforms – and combine them with new technologies. For the first few aircraft, we actually bought airframes that were on the used market. Each and every one had different avionics up in the front of the cockpits. So, there was need for a certain nimbleness that we had to have to effectively use those six or seven aircraft before we could buy new builds that were coming off the line.

What does this product give the warfighter out in the field that he/she didn’t have before? For all of your efforts, what is the end result that you’re trying to deliver? What’s the end effect you’re trying to pull here?

The end effect with BACN is advanced communications for the Air Force with the ground forces, or ground forces with ground forces, and also with the intelligence awareness in the battlefield environment where the more data that the troops have, the better they’re able to go execute their mission. I think that you want to be able to be in a position where you can give our ground forces every bit of situational awareness that they rightfully deserve.

Unmanned aerial systems have been the fastest-growing category that is currently being bought by the Air Force. What are your thoughts on the rapid growth of the Air Force’s UAV fleet, and what was learned in acquiring your first generation of combat-capable unmanned systems?

We really have a great deal of appreciation for places such as Creech Air Force Base [Nev.], and the effort, hours, and energy that those folks in the 432nd Wing do every single day. When you see the pride they have and the effort that they’re putting into their jobs, you appreciate their contributions to the war fight. Some of these UAV programs evolved out of a simple concept definition program early on. One could understand the value and mission effectiveness of using two or three existing systems and combining them to complement each other through product improvements. How could we use more effectively the existing platform? We work on that every day. The lessons learned are through the Pre-Planned Product Improvement (P3I)-type of thought process.

The F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter is still the biggest of the aircraft acquisitions programs currently managed by your office. How is it proceeding these days, and how is it moving as we speak through tests toward IOC down at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., with the 33rd Wing?

As you know, the program was restructured to build on success. We found that we needed to add some additional assets to the test program to ensure that success, and also needed to stretch that test program by approximately 13 months. Subsequent to that restructuring, which occurred and is part of our FY 11 budget, we laid in a program baseline and set up milestones against that program baseline. With that restructuring a very few months ago, the program is now executing to what was portrayed on the schedule. A very important recent milestone for the Air Force was the arrival of the AF-1 and the AF-2 aircraft at Edwards AFB [Calif.]. We are following very closely on a daily basis the progress as these aircraft go through the test program. Eglin AFB will receive AF-6 and AF-7 in a few months and we’ll start the training process.

We are very focused on a couple of things with the Joint Strike Fighter right now. No. 1 one is achieving the test milestones in a timely fashion. There’s a lot of investment that has been made in the labs, in the flying test bed, which would lead one to think that we were in a position for success, and now what we’re trying to do is validate that through the test program. The second one is affordability; this is an enormous program and we have to make sure that we’re buying this product in the most affordable way. We are transitioning to fixed-price incentive production contracts on that system as quickly as we can. We will make sure that we have an affordable price for the aircraft, not only for the Air Force but also for the Navy and Marine Corps, along with our foreign partners. I know many leaders in those partner nations and we have an awesome responsibility to them as well.

You mentioned earlier, in talking about the AIP program, that obviously without skilled acquisitions professionals you can’t buy things and services. Can you talk a bit more about your efforts on the personnel front?

There are four elements of our workforce. No. 1 is our military personnel base, and we have a pretty consistent number of our military folks in acquisition. We are really focused on trying to give them the very best training. The second group is our career civil service civilians, and a lot of our recent recruitment and hiring is in our career civilian workforce. We’re actually having some success in getting some very high-quality people in the Dayton environment. In some locations, higher cost-of-living areas such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Boston, it can be tougher because we’re up against a civilian pay scale that’s quite high. In those areas, we augment through the Federally Funded Research and Development Center [FFRDC] program. MITRE, Aerospace, and Lincoln Labs are the primary FFRDCs that support the Air Force. We’re constantly looking through the changing world of cyber and things of that nature at how we can more effectively use our FFRDCs. MITRE went through a wonderful process at Hanscom AFB [Mass.] at the end of last year, going through each and every program office to find out how they could slightly tailor their skill sets to more effectively support the Air Force. Another area where we augment our acquisition workforce is our system engineering and technical assistance organizations, where they can support us on a day-by-day basis. They may have a specialized skill set like a reliability engineer, or a supreme quality assurance engineer, skills that wouldn’t be a normal category of an organic military or civil service person.

What things would you like to see come across your desk that would give you better tools and better leverage in spending the people’s money and getting the things and services this Air Force needs?

First of all, we’ve been working hard on a series of metrics that we follow and have been honing. It’s like when you run your own company. You have to identify in your business what are those things that drive your business. We are trying to constantly refine these metrics into identifying those issues that drive our effectiveness, and how we can do things better. From our standpoint, that job is never done. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we work it every day to the best of our ability.

How have you evolved your relationship with industry, and helped improve that partnership?

We’ve given, after a thorough discussion, a set of rules of engagement to our acquisition workforce – those things that we think we ought to be doing and trying to set a tone of how we challenge ourselves to do what the taxpayer and the warfighter would want us to do. By the way, we pass these rules to our industry partners. We’ve had at least two CEO conferences with industry on these topics. The rules of engagement are a path we’re walking down with our industrial partners to change for the better some of the ways we’ve been doing our business. We’re trying to work for success of the country.

As you sit here today, how do you like your contractor base?

I worry about small business. I worry about the innovation of small business and how we can keep that energy going out in the country for innovative ideas; for cost-effective ideas; how small businesses can find their way into the research and development activities; how they can further get their way up to our platforms. As you know, the economic crisis has made their fate a little tougher and capitalization has gone way down as a number of issues have occurred. That’s an energy of the nation that we need to make sure that we sustain.

This article was first published in The Year in Defense: Aerospace Edition 2010-2011.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...