Chair Force Engineer

Monday, May 22, 2006

Acquisition Officer: An Oxymoron

Many pundits have accused the Air Force's space acquisitions programs of being broken. Some have suggested various fixes. While I haven't seen enough of the space acquisition environment to observe what is broken and what effect any potential fixes might have, I can offer my thoughts on what I feel is a very broad problem: the oxymoron of the "acquisition officer."

The Air Force trains its officers to be leaders. The difference between "leaders" and "managers" is illustrated, and "management" is frowned upon. "Leaders" are supposed to motivate their subordinates, take care of their troops, and basically be like John Wayne or Optimus Prime.

In spite of this, the acquisition career field lends itself to a manager, not a leader. Acquisition officers manage resources, whether they be people or money or materiel. Everything I have seen up to this point has reflected management instead of leadership. Managers remind me of Office Space's Bill Lumbergh: "Yeah Peter, I'm gonna have to ask you to come in on Saturday, and I'm gonna have to ask you to come in Sunday as well..."

I'm not saying that acquisition managers need to change their management styles. What I do suggest is that the Air Force stop treating its acquisition officer candidates in the same way that it treats the potential jet jockeys. Acquisition officer candidates should be identified at an early stage in their training and be trained in the ways of acquisition management. This way, the Air Force avoids the post-commissioning letdown that hits these officers like a wall of bricks upon their first acquisition assignment. A person can go from being a squadron commander in his or her ROTC detachment to being the commander of the copy machine and shredder. It's a situation that leads to false expectations and disillusionment. The Air Force should let these officers know what they are getting into before they commission, and this will help them find the people best suited for acquisition.