The increasingly frequent practice of tagging combat equipment requests as “urgent” needs has resulted in widespread abuse of the system, military officials and congressional investigators said.
Because the Pentagon’s acquisition bureaucracy can take months or years to develop, test and deploy new hardware, commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan often have resorted to “urgent needs” requests, which help bypass the cumbersome procurement process. In many cases, these pleas are legitimate, but there are also instances when requisitions that are labeled “urgent” are for items of questionable value, said Lt. Gen. Donald J. Hoffman, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
“I’ve seen a lot of abuse in the requirements area,” Hoffman said at a recent conference in Virginia Beach, Va., organized by the U.S. Naval Institute. “A lot of things get labeled ‘urgent needs,’ … things they couldn’t get through the regular process,” Hoffman said.
The Defense Department should ensure there is “proper filtering of the requirements and understanding what’s an urgent requirement,” he said. “Wanting something bad is not the same as needing it bad.”
The Defense Department created “express lanes” for military commanders to circumvent the ponderous acquisition process, but it also should have a better method of filtering requests, Hoffman said.
A senior Navy official who served in Iraq echoed Hoffman’s assertions.
Pressing war requests not only are misused by military officials but also have become an expedient vehicle for contractors to push products, said Rear Adm. Jan Hamby, director of operations at the Naval Network Warfare Command.
“When I was in Baghdad, I saw urgent unfunded requirements spewing out just because someone — usually with stars on his collar — wanted a new toy he had heard about,” Hamby said at the conference. The desired equipment was requested “with no thought about how it would fit within the framework of the existing systems,” she added.
Hamby said she would like to see more integrity on the part of contractors. “We need to figure out which bells and whistles aren’t adding anything,” she said. Oftentimes, “someone has a product they want to pitch. They figure out how it might be useful, and then they market it to all their friends who are still in the service or used to work for them,” she added. “They try to sell them on why this thing will win the war for us.”
Hamby, who was overseeing computers and information systems in Baghdad, said she frequently witnessed deliveries of new hardware that had not been requested by her office. “Systems showed up that nobody had asked for,” she said.
Making matters worse, these new systems complicated her job because they were not compatible with existing technologies, Hamby said. “Anything that is brought to the table should have interoperability.” It turned out that certain organizations that “championed” various technologies were having items shipped to Iraq even if they had not been requested.
The unrestricted use of urgent equipment requests by the U.S. Special Operations Command also has raised flags. A recent report by the Government Accountability Office cautioned that SOCOM has to more closely manage the transfer of dollars from standard acquisition accounts to immediate war requisitions.
“Urgent requirements to support SOCOM’s role in Afghanistan and Iraq, and its new role as the lead in the global war on terrorism, have and will continue to challenge SOCOM’s ability to balance near- and long-term needs against available funding resources,” GAO said. “For example, according to SOCOM, in order to fund urgent deployment acquisitions in the past five years, the command reallocated about $259 million from existing and planned programs.”
SOCOM officials said that urgent needs must meet one of two criteria: a potential mission failure or loss of life.
Since 2001, SOCOM has fulfilled about 50 urgent requests at a cost of $339 million. The command, for instance, acquired and modified about 150 commercial off-the-shelf 4x4 trucks sedans, and sport utility vehicles, and fielded them in about four weeks. SOCOM officials told GAO investigators that pressing war requisitions are not to be used as a means of circumventing or accelerating the normal program approval or funding processes. GAO, however, cautioned that SOCOM may be mismanaging resources because its primary tool for tracking its acquisition programs has not been consistently maintained with up-to-date information.
“Addressing high-priority urgent needs from the field will continue to challenge SOCOM’s ability to complete existing programs on time and within budget,” GAO said.
SOCOM’s acquisition executive told GAO that urgent acquisitions are expected to continue for the next several years, and the command anticipates requesting about $20 million to $25 million each year from 2008 to 2013 to pay for these needs.
GAO attributed many of the troubles in current military acquisitions to the shortage of qualified government procurement managers.
The problem has been acknowledged at the Pentagon, where officials are trying to figure out how to bolster the acquisition workforce.
Shay Assad, director of defense procurement, acquisition policy and strategic sourcing, said that studies are under way to assess the competence of the acquisition workforce and to determine whether more project managers are needed. Mounting criticism from lawmakers and watchdog groups has prompted the Defense Department to take a closer look at the skills of its procurement workers. Assad said the answer may not necessarily be more personnel but rather better training for current workers.
“The immediate reaction is, ‘You don’t have enough people,’” Assad said at the conference. “But it’s premature to jump to that conclusion until we know how capable we are.”
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