Reauthorizing DHS: Aligning Requirements, Research, Development and Acquisition


Oct 23, 2017

A view of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington, October 4, 2013

A view of the U.S. Capitol Dome in Washington, October 4, 2013

Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

This commentary originally appeared on The National Interest on October 22, 2017.

This commentary is part of a series on the reauthorization of the Department of Homeland Security. Other topics include: the case for reauthorization, improving operational control of the department; and contemplating major DHS organizational realignments.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has made progress in strengthening its management functions. However, a 2017 Government Accountability Office report stressed the department must continue “to show measurable, sustainable progress in implementing corrective actions and achieving outcomes,” including in acquisitions.

As part of the discussion about reauthorizing DHS, the Congress might want to consider how to improve acquisitions. Rather than focusing exclusively on the steps in the acquisition process, that discussion could also include consideration of pre and post-acquisition activities such as requirements generation, research and development, and lifecycle support. In fact, the foundations for developing successful programs and capabilities begins well before and continues long after the acquisition is completed.

Early development of user requirements remains essential to successful acquisitions. Research and development activities provide useful opportunities to learn about possibilities, experiment with concepts and refine system requirements. Users become better consumers through R&D activities, can better define their requirements and will likely have a final product that better reflects their operational needs.

While DHS conducts limited research, every component is involved in development. Only the Science and Technology Directorate, the Domestic Nuclear Detection Agency, and U.S. Coast Guard conduct basic and applied research (PDF). But development includes gaining a knowledge or understanding of the “materials, devices and systems, or methods” to be involved in the acquisition. It also includes developing prototypes and new processes as well as the validation of the system in a simulated and operational environment. In effect, the R&D and acquisition systems overlap with operational requirements as the glue that binds them together.

Research, development and acquisition are not necessarily sequential and the interactions between them continually evolve for each program or capability being developed. For example, in the Biowatch Generation 3 program, an acquisition program designed to improve the nation's system for detecting a biological attack, it was determined that the technology had not matured to the level required to meet the system requirements. The result was the 2014 cancellation of the acquisition program by Secretary Jeh Johnson and a return of the program to the early R&D phases.…

The remainder of this commentary is available at

Daniel M. Gerstein works at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and is an adjunct professor at American University. He was the undersecretary (acting) and deputy undersecretary in the Science and Technology Directorate of the Department of Homeland Security from 2011–14.