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How to Fix Defense Acquisition

As a new captain in 1959, I began my career in Air Force acquisition. I managed the nuclear version of the Short Range Attack Missile (SRAM), then later the development and deployment of the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS). I retired as commander of the Air Force Systems Command in 1987. During this time, I watched the strange evolution of the defense acquisition system.

Perhaps the greatest blow to effective acquisition was the Goldwater-Nichols Act, which removed the chiefs from being responsible for acquisition and turned it over to the service civilian secretaries. Their staffs and the office of the secretary of defense suddenly blossomed into the defense acquisition process and began to issue numerous amounts of guidance and direction.

Keep in mind that a successful acquisition consists of two basic elements: process and product. The product is usually hardware — a ship, a tank or an aircraft. On the other hand, processes are simply guidance papers that are constantly produced within the Pentagon — whether they are needed or not — and they feed, and create the justification needed for an army of well meaning Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) bureaucrats who are always busy justifying their essentiality to the acquisition programs. Their numbers and processes will always far exceed, in numbers, the product that they supposedly support.

The processes and procedures flow down — usually as directives which become accountable at the program office — and the execution of the individual processes and procedures become cost bearing. To the extent that the contractor must do the work, it bills the program office.

When I was a program manager for SRAM and AWACS, I only dealt with the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. However, I had to provide quarterly reports to the commander of Air Force Systems Command, and then to air staff three-stars, and then to the chief of staff and the secretary of the Air Force. Good or bad, you had to have your story straight or be ready to get chewed up. You had to talk to product performance schedule achievement, cost performance, and predict a “get well” time if you were behind. And you learned under the penetrating gaze of Air Force Secretary Robert Seamans and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Ryan how little real breathing room you had between quarterly reviews.

In retirement, I have participated in three independent industry efficiency reviews focused on eliminating poorly performing units and workforce reductions to make the companies more effective and cost competitive. It was sometimes brutal, but it worked.

How can you do that in OSD? You can’t. OSD is not in the profit-and-loss business. Another Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) multimillion-dollar overrun can be shrugged off. No one is accountable — certainly not the process creators, nor defense secretaries Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, each of whom had a few years of JSF responsibility. The schedule delays, the cost increases and the overruns grew. Nobody was fired.

It is a sad way to do business, with no real accountability. Every OSD acquisition study I have looked at avoids any mention of accountability.

Here are some suggested solutions:

Step 1: Create an independent military acquisition agency, located outside of the Pentagon, responsible only to the secretary of defense and staffed by government and industry members who have worked in the nitty-gritty of major acquisition programs.

Step 2: Have the various personnel systems in OSD identify and tag everyone assigned to a significant acquisition program by skill, by experience level and by current assignment. This should produce a starting level of skills and experience. Relocate these people as necessary to current programs, based on functional expertise background and experience.

Step 3: Create an educational system for new people in the OSD acquisition agency from initial entry.

Step 4: Subject any new industry proposal to a thorough analysis of the cost and risks on all elements of the proposal, before signing a contract.

Step 5: Create a monthly program review with functional chiefs from the government and the contractor reporting on their status.

This will not solve all problems but it will hold officials accountable in real time. And accountability will finally matter.

Ret. Air Force Gen. Lawrence A. Skantze

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