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Research Questions

  1. Which potential sources of prolonged acquisition cycle times and schedule growth are cited in the defense acquisition literature from the 1960s to the present?
  2. Which potential opportunities for improving schedules are cited in the literature?

This report summarizes a selection of the defense acquisition literature from the 1960s to the present on potential sources of prolonged acquisition cycle times and schedule growth, as well as potential opportunities for improvement. It presents the range of possible causes of schedule-related problems and various recommendations cited for improving schedules by various authors and organizations. This report does not provide critical analysis or an assessment of the strengths or weaknesses of the claims made in the literature. Rather, it provides a starting point for further research or consideration by government acquisition professionals, oversight organizations, and the analytic community. We identified the following reasons for schedule delays in the literature: (1) the difficulty of managing technical risk (e.g., program complexity, immature technology, and unanticipated technical issues), (2) initial assumptions or expectations that were difficult to fulfill (e.g., schedule estimates, risk control, requirements, and performance assumptions), and (3) funding instability. The most commonly cited recommendations for reducing cycle time and controlling schedule growth in the literature are strategies that manage or reduce technical risk. Some of those recommendations include using incremental fielding or evolutionary acquisition strategies, developing derivative products (rather than brand-new designs), using mature or proven technology (i.e., commercial, off-the-shelf components), maintaining stable funding, and using atypical contracting vehicles.

Key Findings

Some Potential Reasons for Longer Cycle Times or Schedule Delays

  • Infeasible or unrealistic requirements
  • Unstable requirements (e.g., engineering requirements, readiness requirements, reliability and support requirements)
  • Inefficiencies in the process (e.g., serial nature of process and requirements evolution)
  • Excessive technical, manufacturing, or integration risk (general) or program complexity
  • Unanticipated design, engineering, manufacturing, technical difficulty, or technology integration issues
  • Overly optimistic assumptions/expectations
  • Immature technology
  • Concurrency in complicated programs
  • Prototyping
  • Deficient test planning or testing inefficiencies
  • Funding instability or budget cuts
  • Lack of focus on schedule or inadequate schedule management
  • Overly optimistic assumptions/expectations in cost and schedule estimates
  • Personnel issues
  • Competition

Some Potential Ways to Remedy Schedule Challenges

  • Stable and realistic initial requirements, especially at the engineering level
  • Better collaboration between the program management and end-user communities (with proper management)
  • Proper management of flexible requirements
  • Use of mature/demonstrated technology to ensure a high level of maturity before production
  • Employment of "agile" methods that can easily adapt to changes in software development
  • Prototyping
  • Use of commercially derived items
  • Use of the commercial practice of freezing the design before the production contract award
  • Use of the commercial practice of reducing the design's complexity
  • Stable funding
  • Adequate test funds (hardware, modeling and simulation)
  • Acquisition of the same number of units but in larger, more economical quantities in the production phase
  • Development and maintenance of a comprehensive and realistic master schedule
  • Involvement of the test community in all program phases
  • Use of integrated product teams
  • Realistic schedule estimates
  • Senior leadership support


  • This report could provide a starting point for further research or consideration, such as critical analysis or an assessment of the strengths or weaknesses of the claims made in the literature, by government acquisition professionals, oversight organizations, and the analytic community.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Background and Motivation

  • Chapter Two

    Sources of Schedule Growth

  • Chapter Three

    Improving Schedule Performance

  • Chapter Four


  • Appendix

    A Case Study in Fulfilling an Urgent Operational Need: The MRAP Acquisition Program

The research described in this report was prepared for the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD). The research was conducted within the RAND National Defense Research Institute, a federally funded research and development center sponsored by OSD, the Joint Staff, the Unified Combatant Commands, the Navy, the Marine Corps, the defense agencies, and the defense Intelligence Community.

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