The Department of Defense (DoD) has put a lot of emphasis on speeding up the acquisition and development of new technologies out of a need to keep pace with new advances and potential adversaries. But a new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO)–evaluating the Army Futures Command modernization effort–throws in a word of caution, saying there is such a thing as going too fast.

The report on Army modernization, released earlier this month, warns that the Army is ignoring accepted practices by plans to bring new weapons systems into development at a low level of maturity, which could lead to “cost increases, delivery delays, or failure to deliver desired capabilities.” GAO said it has raised the same issue with some Army acquisitions for nearly 20 years, and is concerned that Army Futures Command is taking the same approach with the six capability needs the Army has named as priorities.

Army Futures Command, on which the Army plans to spend $7.5 billion over five years, was announced in October 2017 and given the job of modernizing the future force. That includes generating innovative solutions through research and development, and doing it “at speeds far faster than our current process allows,” Secretary of the Army Mark T. Esper said last August when the command unveiled its headquarters at the University of Texas at Austin.

The Army’s six top priorities cover long-range precision fires, the Next-Generation Combat Vehicle, the Future Vertical Lift program, air and missile defense, soldier lethality, and the Army network, described as a mobile system of hardware, software, and infrastructure that work cohesively in an environment where the electromagnetic spectrum is denied or degraded.

GAO noted positive development, including the prioritization of capabilities needs, the establishment of eight cross-functional teams to work on development, and allocating $1 billion in science and technology funding as part of the overall modernization budget. And the Army has applied leading practices in several key areas, such as how the cross-functional teams determine requirements and tech development, the report said.

But the report said that plans to put new technologies into systems before they’re matured “risks delays in equipping the warfighter, and can potentially lead to cost overruns.” The Army also hasn’t captured the lessons learned from the cross-functional team pilots. “If the Army fails to institutionalize these lessons learned in the new command, it risks losing the benefits from the experiences of these pilots thereby either repeating past mistakes or failing to benefit from past practices that worked well,” the report said.

Specifically, GAO found fault with the Army’s plans to demonstrate new technologies in a “relevant environment, such as a highly realistic laboratory setting, before transitioning them to specific platforms or programs,” the report said. Leading practices, instead, call for demonstrations in an operational or realistic environment, “to ensure that they work as intended for the end-user.”

Speeding up the acquisition, development, and deployment of new technologies is a stated goal of the DoD, with leaders often citing accelerated development by China and Russia in areas such as artificial intelligence, cyberspace, electronic warfare, and weapons systems. In April, the DOD restructured its acquisition system, dividing it into two spheres–Acquisition and Sustainment, and Research and Engineering–with the goal of staying ahead of adversaries. Projects being run by the Defense Innovation Unit, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and other components are working with industry and academia to get products developed and deployed faster.

GAO’s audit of Army Futures Command throws up a caution flag on accelerated development, however, warning that veering too far from accepted practices in order to get to the finish line more quickly could cause problems and lead to the kinds of delays and cost overruns that acquisition changes are intended to prevent.

The report recommends, among other steps, that the Army apply leading practices with technology development, especially with regard to demonstrating in an operational environment, and incorporate the cross-functional teams’ lessons learned into the command.

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Kate Polit
Kate Polit
Kate Polit is MeriTalk's Assistant Copy & Production Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.