The False Promises of Acquisition Reform
By Harvey M. Sapolsky
Acquisition reform has become the perennial hopeless cause. Administrations promise it. Commissions report about it. Congressional committees hold hearings on it.
Laws are drafted, passed, and signed. New regulations are written. There are lots of training sessions to get project managers to understand the new rules. But cost overruns, schedule slippages, and performance lapses still plague nearly all weapon system acquisitions.
Hopeless causes have reasons for their hopelessness, the most basic of which in this case is that defense is a cyclical business. Threats rise and fall, wars begin and end. Since World War II, the U.S. defense budget has gone through three major cycles: Korea, Vietnam and the Reagan buildup. It is currently working its way through its fourth, the global war on terror (or whatever we end up calling it).
If you have a weapons project that is not mostly funded on the upside of one of the cycles, it is likely to be in big budget trouble. Our military needs always exceed our resources.
Everyone involved knows that the upturns will not last, and thus willingly pushes projects ahead, often too fast so as to force development and production to be conducted concurrently. Once the downturn begins it is difficult to start new projects and existing ones are likely to be stretched, which causes development corners to be cut and unit costs to escalate.
There are other reasons why weapon acquisitions disappoint. The Defense Department actually has good ships, aircraft and armored vehicles. When the military services want to start a project to develop new ones, they have to claim that the new ship, aircraft or tank is going to be significantly better than the existing one for the same or a moderately higher cost.
To avoid duplication and waste, projects are now frequently combined or made joint. The more projects get in trouble with cost overruns or big delays, the fewer of them are allowed to start. And perhaps most problematic of all, we have come to insist upon big system projects, ones that integrate all the possible related elements and that therefore are the most complex. Taken together these trends force projects to attempt to achieve operational requirements that can be contradictory, such as being blast resistant and lightweight or having great range and a large payload.
And if the performance goals are not daunting enough, projects are burdened with a large set of contextual goals, the aspirations of modern government. We want projects to be transparent, to utilize small businesses, to be sensitive to their environment impacts, to favor work in areas of high unemployment, and so on.
Add to the mix the congressional desire to promote local interests, the anxieties of political appointees who wish no responsibility for bad news, and the need to run a gauntlet of mandated reviews and reports that are the legacies of previous reforms and you can see why few projects come in on time, on budget and are deemed successful.
Acquisition reform is the false promise that we can get it right next time. Somehow with more government contract monitors and tougher regulations we will repeal the reality of rollercoaster budgets and the need to promise more than can be easily delivered in order to get the chance to build new weapon systems.
Working at the edge of advance technologies is an uncertain process. The only certainty is that weapon system projects will have problems, often big ones.
Harvey M. Sapolsky is a professor emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he taught defense and health policy courses and was until recently the director of the MIT Security Studies Program. He also is an occasional consultant to defense firms.