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This article was Originally Published on Jul 01, 2002 in Volume: 1  Issue: 3

Materiel Provider

Interview with General Lester L. Lyles

Commander, U.S. Air Force Materiel Control

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General Lester L. Lyles is commander, U.S. Air Force Materiel Command, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, OH. The command conducts research, development, test and evaluation, and provides acquisition management services and logistics support necessary to keep Air Force weapons systems ready for war.

 The general entered the Air Force in 1968 as a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program at Howard University. He has served in various assignments, including Program Element Monitor of the short-range attack missile at Headquarters U.S. Air Force in 1974, and as special assistant and aide-de-camp to the commander of Air Force Systems Command (AFSC) in 1978. In 1981 he was assigned to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, as avionics division chief in the F-16 Systems Program Office. He has served as director of Tactical Aircraft Systems at AFSC headquarters and as director of the Medium-Launch Vehicles Program and Space-Launch Systems offices.

The general became AFSC headquartersâ?? Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff for Requirements in 1989, and Deputy Chief of Staff for Requirements in 1990. In 1992 he became vice commander of Ogden Air Logistics Center, Hill Air Force Base, UT. He served as commander of the center from 1993 until 1994, and then was assigned to command the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, CA, until 1996. The general became the director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization in 1996. In May 1999, he was assigned as vice chief of staff at Headquarters U.S. Air Force. He assumed his current position in April 2000.

Lyles was interviewed by Senior Editor Dan Cook.

Q: The world changed on Sept. 11, 2001, and with it the mission of the U.S. armed services. Could you briefly state the mission of the Air Force Materiel Command and what has changed since the terrorist bombings?

A: Our command is the support command for all of the U.S. Air Force. Weâ??re responsible for developing new science and technology. Weâ??re responsible for acquiring and developing new systems and for sustaining all of our weapons systems. Itâ??s a cradle-to-grave responsibility, from technology to development to sustaining every major system we have in the Air Force inventory.

That ranges from aircraft systems and aeronautical systems to command and control, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance systems through munition systems. We no longer have responsibility directly for space systems. On Oct. 1 of last year, that portion of our mission was turned over to Air Force Space Command in response to the congressional Space Commission. But we still have linkage with space activities because of the importance of space to all of our development in the future.

Q: And the second half of the question?

A: Iâ??m always very careful of how I answer this. To be perfectly honest with you, the mission itself has not changed. If anything has changed, itâ??s the importance and urgency with which we accomplish our mission. We have been working very aggressively to ensure that we get systems out of our depots and supply systems to support the war effort, and weâ??ve been working very aggressively to ensure that our technologies donâ??t just reside in our laboratories and our benches, but we get those technologies and capabilities into the hands of the warfighter a lot quicker than perhaps we would have done normally. The biggest change has been the urgency of some of our processes and the way we do business.

Q: What challenges have you experienced in the past in accomplishing this mission and how were they resolved? What new challenges remain and how will they be resolved?

A: The major challenge that I would highlight would be to think in terms of capabilities or effects that were necessary for the warfighter. We had been working, even prior to Sept. 11, on a whole different mindset on how we develop and acquire systems. We call it enterprise management; that is looking at what effects and what capabilities we need to provide to our warfighters as opposed to individual programs or individual systems.

If anything, Sept. 11 has reinforced the importance of capability and effects management and capability in effects thinking for providing the kind of support we give to warfighters. Let me give you an example: Instead of thinking of just an F-16 and its capabilities, or just an F-15 and its capabilities, we think in terms of how the F-15 and F-16 need to work with space systems, with command and control systems, with unmanned aerial vehicles to give a certain effect to the warfighter.

Instead of developing against those individual stovepipe programs, how do we ensure that we are working all those things together as an enterprise to get the kind of war fighting effects and capabilities that are necessary? Weâ??ve been putting a bigger emphasis on this since Sept. 11, but we actually started before then.

Q: In 2001, the Air Force adopted the Agile Acquisition initiative, the latest attempt at acquisition reform. Could you describe what it is and how it works?

A: I liked the terminology you used in your question, that itâ??s acquisition reform. The term I would like to use to describe it is "acquisition excellence," if you will. Itâ??s more than just acquisition reform, itâ??s really being the best we can be in every part of our acquisition process in terms of technology and how we develop and mature technology, in terms of defining requirements for our warfighters and the capabilities they need in terms of the development process itself, and then again in terms of sustainment.

What Agile Acquisition is intended to do is to try to radically address the entire acquisition process to speed up a couple of things, and the major area we focus on initially is cycle time. We want to be able to give a capability to the warfighter in literally one-fourth of the time than it would normally take. As an example, if it would normally take eight years to give capabilities to a warfighter, weâ??d like to figure out how we can provide that capability, at least an initial capability, to the warfighter in two or three years.

So Agile Acquisition tries to speed up the entire acquisition process to better support the warfighter than what weâ??ve done in the past.

Q: Going back to the events of Sept. 11, has there been any specific value of Agile Acquisition relative to those events?

A: Probably the one that would jump out more than anything else would be the capabilities provided by our unmanned aerial vehicles like the Predator system and Global Hawk, a longer-range strategic ISR platform that we have been developing. The normal course of action for both of those programs - particularly for Global Hawk - would have not gotten that capability into the hands of the warfighter for a few more years.

We now are looking at spiral development, if I can use that terminology, so that we look at how we can get an initial capability to the warfighter quickly for all of our systems. We have in fact been able to do that with Global Hawk and with Predator, particularly a Predator with some armed capability on it, to get that capability - even though itâ??s not perfected yet - into the hands of the warfighter right away. Those would probably be the two best examples of that.

Q: There has been discussion of "spiral development" in the acquisition process as it related to the Air Force and to the Army. What is this, and how will be applied relative to the Air Forceâ??s mission?

A: For us, spiral development is doing something that I think is very, very smart, and that is itâ??s a part of our objective of getting capabilities to the warfighter quickly. To think in terms of meeting the total requirements that the warfighter might have, but doing it in increments. We call it "spirals," because what we want to do is get an initial capability to the warfighter, let him test it, fly it, operate with it. From that weâ??ll learn more about that capability. Weâ??ll learn more about the systems that are involved in that, and then we will apply those lessons learned to the next spiral, or the next update of that particular system.

As an example: Global Hawk. Weâ??re learning a lot by flying Global Hawk in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Weâ??re learning a lot by operating Predators with weapons systems on them. And weâ??re going to capture those lessons learned and apply them to the next major updates of each one of these systems, the next spiral, for each one of these systems. It really is the practice in changing the culture so that we get capabilities quickly to the warfighter, and not try to solve everything - all of his needs - at one time, and it takes eight to 10 years to do it.

We want to get an initial capability into the hands of the warfighter as quickly as possible, and then use that as a precedent for lessons learned to make upgrades to the next system, then do the same thing; to make upgrades to the next system. Eventually, weâ??ll meet all the warfighterâ??s requirements, but I think weâ??ll do it a lot better by the spiral approach rather that the way we do it today.

Q: I am informed that the Air Force has conducted more than 120 studies of acquisition reform. What is it about the Agile Acquisition initiative that is superior to previous acquisition procedures? Is this the answer to long lead times and general sluggishness in the acquisition process?

A: I think all the stars are aligned with respect to pushes from Congress, from the Secretary of Defenseâ??s office, from our warfighters, and certainly from our very strong leadership in the Air Force - at both Secretary and the Chief of Staff level - to change radically the way we do business in the acquisition community to transform that whole process. We have everybody aligned to support the kinds of initiatives that weâ??re coming up with to address what we call Agile Acquisition.

In the past, we didnâ??t have everybody aligned to the point where you could make radical changes and get them to stick. In this case, everybody is behind it, and we are going to institutionalize some of the changes we make, which is something we really didnâ??t do a good job of with some of the other studies weâ??ve been doing for the last 10 or 12 years.

I think the biggest difference I can see is full support of the entire leadership, from the administration on down to the leadership in the Air Force, is to make radical changes and to get rid of impediments.

Q: Do you contemplate changes in the bid solicitation process? If so, what will those changes entail?

A: The answer is "yes." I think we have had examples over the recent past in some specific programs on how we could change that process. It is going to require a faster solicitation process with the contractors, a speedier deliberation on evaluating proposals, looking at streamlined ways we can get contractors on contract, holding contractors accountable in terms of what they bid to us, and not just going by the lowest bidder.

The thing I think thatâ??s going to be even more radical up front is a better way of defining what it is that we want in terms of our requirements. In particular, itâ??s those spiral kind of capabilities that weâ??re going to be looking for.

So we have already done some of these things in the past, but we never institutionalized them. We never really captured them so that everybody could benefit from them, and thatâ??s going to be one of the keys to our Agile Acquisition process. Weâ??re going to really institutionalize and make changes here.

Q: You have been quoted as saying that enterprise management in the Air Force Materiel Command "ties in perfectly with Agile Acquisition. Enterprise management shatters stovepipes." Could you explain the tie-in? What is meant by the second half of your statement?

A: When we started working enterprise management about a year and a half ago in the Air Force, it was very much tied to breaking down stovepipes and breaking down our culture and our management approach of just looking at individual weapons systems instead of looking at the capabilities or effects that we need to provide to a warfighter.

We have designated enterprise managers or commanders for aeronautical systems, command-and-control systems, space systems and armament systems. Those enterprise commanders are making sure that we donâ??t gravitate back to our old way of just looking at the individual programs without considering how they fit into the warfighterâ??s needs and concept of operations.

In many respects, Agile Acquisition  is very much the same thing. Itâ??s not just acquiring agilely an individual system, but how we can assure that weâ??re trying to acquire a set of capabilities or a set of effects for the warfighter. The two are almost synonymous. I think the timing is very, very much appropriate for us to expand this to everything we do in the Air Force.

Q: You further have been quoted as saying that Agile Acquisition demands revolutionary changes. In what way?

A: The most unique way is in our culture, and how we train our program managers, how we train ourselves, how we work technology. Again, to get away from the stovepipes and start looking at how we can aggregate capabilities, how we can bring together various systems to create an effect that the warfighter wants and to meet his requirement. Itâ??s about how we develop systems in terms of spirals instead of trying to do everything all at once, the way we have been taught to do in the past.

All of these things very well fit together in terms of where weâ??re going and in terms of where the warfighter is demanding that we go.

Q: Could you describe the new Acquisition Center of Excellence, its mission, and how it will assist in meeting the goals you have outlined above?

A: One of the key things we want to do is to adapt best practices that we find elsewhere. The Acquisition Center of Excellence concept came from the NRO [National Reconnaissance Office]. Itâ??s something that they have been using for the last couple of years. What it is from the NROâ??s prospective is a group of experts who are looking at programs to ensure that best practices are inculcated across all of their acquisition programs in the NRO, and to ensure that they are removing barriers and bureaucracies that might be in the way of doing streamlined acquisition.

The Air Forceâ??s Acquisition Center of Excellence that just stood up last December is very much intended to be what the NRO has. We want to ensure that we have an organization that has free range, if you will, to look for best practices - not just within the Air Force community - but anywhere within industry, with other organizations like the NRO, and to spread those best practices across all of the acquisition programs we have in the U.S. Air Force, to help us to change the culture.

Weâ??ll have surrogates at each one of the centers within Air Force Materiel Command to ensure that that culture, those best practices are actually taken down across everything that we do within the acquisition community. So this really is a best practice that weâ??ve adapted from another organization.

Q: Although the Center of Excellence is relatively new, how have you been able to garner any measurable results from its work?

A: Weâ??re still in the infancy. I think there are examples of best practices that we are beginning to spread across all of our programs. We have a set of pathfinder programs that weâ??re going to use for all of our streamlining initiatives. We want to use them as a stimulus for applying Agile Acquisition initiatives across the board, and we will then use those as a way to change the process for the entire Air Force acquisition community.

Q: Why is spiral development superior to the more traditional linear, step-by-step acquisition and development process?

A: The key is just as I said: to get capabilities earlier into the warfighterâ??s hands, let him fly it, use it in his concept of operations, and then use all of that to update the concept of operations and what the user needs before we make the next spiral improvement. It builds upon itself in that particular manner.

Q: These programs appear to add value to acquisition processes contained in Air Force regulations and allows acquisition partners "to accept reasonable risk and to innovate." What is meant by "reasonable risk" and by innovation in this instance?

A: We really want to get out of the risk-averse nature that weâ??ve all been taught to apply to acquisition and development systems. Let me give you a real-world example: About two years ago, maybe a little more than a year-and-a-half ago, we had the commander of our Air Combat Command, come to us and asked, "What would it take - and how long would it take - to put a weapon on a Predator UAV?"

We initially came back with a relatively long development and test program because our natural mindset is to reduce the risk down to its ultimate minimum, to test everything we possibly can - we as engineers and we as acquirers - before we will go to the user and say that everything is perfect.

We laid out what would have taken about two years of testing before we would actually answer the question and give that capability to the warfighter. We were challenged to forget about the risk involved in it. We were actually authorized to fail, to go and try it even if it meant that there might be some risk of failure.

With that sort of mindset, we ended up doing that program to our satisfaction and to that of the warfighter, in the manner of about six months. And we proved that, yes; you can take a Hellfire missile and fire it off a Predator. That approach came in very, very handy so that now, as you well know, weâ??re operating with that particular system in Operation Enduring Freedom. We are learning a lot by that, and we recognize that we didnâ??t test every test point; we didnâ??t solve every risk. We used innovation to show that you can do things quickly, but we were willing to accept some modicum of risk just to quickly prove we had a capability.

And then along came Sept.11, and now we have that capability in the hands of the warfighter. We want to apply that approach, use innovation and become less risk-averse in a lot of our systems that we develop in the Air Force today.

Q: Is there anything I have not asked that you would care to add to further define and clarify the mission of your command?

A: The one key thing is that we have a lot of great people within our command, and I can say the same thing about my counterparts in the Army and the Navy. What we want to do is to allow them to use the innovation that they beg us for everyday. There are a lot of bureaucracies and lot of red tape that we put in front of them as we told people how they needed to acquire and develop systems in the past. In some respects, our Agile Acquisition is the way to get rid of some of the bureaucracy and red tape to allow the great people to use the innovation that they really want to use and apply to our systems for the Air Force.

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