Exclusive: HASC Chairman Thornberry Talks Acquisition Reform, Budget Issues and Prospects for Base Closures
Photo: Stew Magnuson
Since picking up the gavel as the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee at the beginning of the 114th Congress in 2015, Rep. Mac Thornberry has made acquisition reform at the Defense Department a top priority.
That year, the Republican who hails from Texas’ 13th district made his first effort to tackle a system — which many say is too slow and cumbersome — when he introduced the Acquisition Agility Act. Many provisions in the legislation made it into the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, which was signed into law at the end of 2016.
Months later, Thornberry has another acquisition reform bill in the works. He plans to share details about the yet-to-be-named bill on May 18 at the National Defense Industrial Association’s annual dinner, where he will be presented with the organization’s Dwight D. Eisenhower Award.
Thornberry sat down with National Defense Magazine on May 4 ahead of the ceremony to talk about acquisition reform, the military buildup proposed by President Donald Trump and other topics. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q. Can we talk first about the omnibus budget bill that passed the House this week? Some analysts are saying that it doesn’t do much to address modernization, or begin the so-called Trump military build-up.
A. That is true. It does not do all the repair, much less rebuild the military, as we need to do. But we are so far into the fiscal year, that it was necessary to pass the bill now. It has a very modest beginning on repairing the damage of the past, so I supported it. A number of my colleagues didn’t think it was enough and voted against it, but the key is, we have got to really be more serious about it for the next fiscal year.
Q. What are some of its pluses?
A. Number one, it is an appropriations bill, not a continuing resolution. A lot of people do not appreciate the damage a CR does to the military where you have got to spend the same money on the same things that you did last year, whether you need to or not. And it prevents new starts.
For example, this year we ended up passing a special provision for the Ohio-class [ballistic missile submarine] replacement. It’s a new start. We were able to put in an exception back in December for it, but there are hundreds — if not thousands — of programs that are either starting or ending and we cannot provide an exception for them all under a CR.
So it is an appropriations bill. It is an increase over last year, and it meets some needs, for example with munitions and so forth, but we just have a lot more to do.
Q. President Trump as a candidate made several promises regarding a military buildup. I wanted to address each of the four services. Can we start with the Army and the promise of a total of 540,000 troops? Is that needed and how quickly could that be accomplished?
A. The Army definitely needs to grow. I cannot tell you 540,000 is the magic number, but it definitely needs to grow. And [Chief of Staff] Gen. [Mark A.] Milley will say a lot of it is not growing new units, it is filling the holes in the units we have. So I think that is essential because what is happening increasingly over the past few years is when a unit is about to go deploy, we cannibalize other units to make the deploying unit whole and leaving the others even more unable to do the training or what they really need to do.
I think the Army definitely needs to grow. If you keep your recruiting standards high, it takes time. It obviously takes more time to get the experience that unfortunately we have lost by forcing too many people — majors, colonels, etc. — out in recent years. As we have drawn down, we forced some people to retire that didn’t want to retire. And so getting back that experience is just going to take time.
Q. You have to modernize at the same time. The Army has been on kind of an acquisition pause since the Future Combat System was canceled. Can they rebuild the force and modernize at the same time?
A. They have to. We have gotten to a point in the services where there really is no other option. We have delayed modernization to the point to where what we have remaining takes more and more maintenance to keep it going. And while we do some remarkable things — like keeping B-52s going obviously for decades — we can’t keep everything on life support. And a lot of Army equipment as well as the Marine equipment is in that boat.
Q. How about the Marine Corps, increasing it from 23 battalions up to 36? And it has its own modernization issues as well. It’s kind of the same story as the Army.
A. It is kind of the same story. Except the only thing I would say is: if there is an acute problem anywhere, it is in Marine aviation. And just as an example, the Marine Corps will admit the old F-18s that they are still flying take twice as much maintenance as the new F-18s. So they have shortages of pilots, they have shortages of maintainers, they are not able to provide enough planes to keep the pilots training because so much maintenance is required on the ones that they have. And so you get into this cycle of not being able to be ready, with all of these factors playing a role. … Ground vehicles and all sorts of things are in a similar situation. I guess the difference is, if a ground vehicle doesn’t work, it doesn’t come falling out of the sky and kill people.
Q. And the Navy? The Congressional Budget Office came out with a report last week suggesting that building a 355-ship Navy will take decades.
A. Everybody acknowledges that we have got to have more ships. Last week, [U.S. Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr. said] one of his most severe shortages is submarines. We have got to build more ships and we have got to put shipbuilding on a different trajectory. We may disagree, or have to work out, what that trajectory looks like — how many years, how much money per year, etc. — but I don’t think there is any dispute that we have to ramp up shipbuilding.
The other key question that comes up is: how much are the yards capable of increasing? Frankly, I get some different stories depending on who you ask about that. But we need to test it. We need to increase the shipbuilding budget, but build ships more efficiently. You know if you do two at a time you can get each part cheaper, so we need to test the capability of the yards by beginning that increase. I don’t know exactly what that slope will look like, but it has got to go up.
Q. President Trump also proposed a level of 1,200 jet fighters for the Air Force. But we do have a so-called “bow wave” of acquisition coming up in the 2020s, with the Joint Surveillance and Target Acquisition System (JSTARS), the F-35, the tankers and new bomber.
A. But you can’t forget the people part. We’re 1,500 pilots short, around 4,000 maintainers short, airlines are hiring, so that is why in the past I think we have looked at readiness too narrowly. You think if you put some more [operations and maintenance] money into it you increase repair and depots and so forth, but that is not going to get it. You have to … grow the size of the Air Force somewhat, because the people you got you are working to death and you’ve got to have some modernization. And the Air Force doesn’t have a choice, especially considering what our adversaries are doing. We have to do the F-35, we have to do the JSTARS, we have to have the tankers, upon which we are more dependent than anybody else. We have to have the new bomber. All those things have to happen.
Q. All these items in the proposed buildup come with a big bill. Will there be enough money to fund all of them?
A. We say big bill. It is big compared to what we have been spending. It is not a big bill compared to what we have historically spent since the end of World War II, either percentage of GDP, percentage of the federal budget. … We are down to 14.7 percent of the federal budget being spent on defense. When President [John F.] Kennedy was in office, it was 50 percent, so we have been going down, down, down, on the percentage of our national treasure we have spent on our defense, so we have got to turn that around.
It doesn’t mean we are going to do something the country can’t afford. We just can’t keep doing what we have been doing.
Q. You have to be unshackled from the Budget Control Act, what are the prospects of that happening this year?
A. Yesterday a letter was released with the signatures of 140 Republicans saying, “We are for doing away with the BCA caps for defense.” I think by any objective measure, the Budget Control Act has failed because it was designed to get mandatory spending under control and it hasn’t touched mandatory spending. The only thing it has done is curtailed discretionary spending and more than half of that is defense.
So I think there is a lot of interest in doing away with the BCA caps. My guess is some other mechanism needs to be put in its place to restrain the mandatory spending, which is two-thirds of the federal budget, and my guess is that is what the House budget for FY ‘18 will look like.
Q. What are the prospects for getting more Democrats on board with this?
A. I don’t know. My guess is if we take action in the House, some way or another, to remove or except the caps for defense, by the time it goes to the Senate, they will want to do the same thing for the domestic side. Just like you saw, the 398 votes … to pass the omnibus this year, I think there is a very good chance you could see bipartisan agreement to do away with the BCA caps. And remember, it applies to the one-third and shrinking part of the budget that is discretionary. It doesn’t touch what is really growing.
Q. Do you think this could happen this year?
A. Yes. I mean the alternative for defense is [overseas contingency operations funding] to keep growing and growing and growing and getting bigger, and nobody likes that. It makes it very difficult to plan. It is not as honest a budgeting mechanism as you would like. It’s better to have the money than not have the money. But still, to have the OCO get bigger and bigger and bigger to get around the BCA caps is not a very good solution.
Q. And what are the prospects for getting out of this rut with continuing resolutions and getting back to regular order? I heard a general recently say that generations of officers don’t remember what regular order was like.
A. And you know what, generations of congressmen don’t remember what regular order was like, too. I think we have had CRs for parts of the last eight years, and five years of the Budget Control Act.
I’m hopeful. I think the example that we just saw with this year’s omnibus is a hopeful sign. And the dynamics are different. Part of what you have seen in the past few years is riders being put on appropriations bills to prevent the Obama administration from doing things.
Well, you don’t have to worry about that anymore. So I think some of the political heat that the appropriations bills have attracted is no longer there.
... There will still be differences of course, but I am hopeful we can still do things straight up on their merit, especially on defense.
Q. The defense industrial base is said to be shrinking. Are you concerned about any particular sector?
A. I am concerned that the defense industrial base is shrinking — becoming more narrow with fewer suppliers and more companies that have been deciding that it is not worth the hassle to do business with the Department of Defense and they will just stay with the commercial market. I also worry about the agility … of the whole system, from the time the Pentagon sets requirements, goes through the bidding process, goes through the testing process and by the time you get something fielded — it’s years. Technology moves much faster than that. I think my concerns really are across the board, especially with small- and middle-sized businesses. The big defense companies can adjust to meet the demands of the Pentagon, but a lot of innovation — not all of it — happens in small- and mid-size companies. And they are the ones who can’t hire armies of accountants and lawyers and so forth. So I am concerned about losing that big driver of American innovation for defense.
Q. And what is Congress’ role? What can you do to alleviate this?
A. We can do a lot because partly we have contributed to the problem by putting more requirements and various mandates on the acquisition system. So we can improve the acquisition process, which we have been working on, and I will have a bill released shortly to have another tranche of that. But we can also provide more stable funding — back to our earlier point. That makes a big difference on the industrial base — being able to plan, being able to hire workers.
Q. Is there anything you want to highlight in that bill that you think might be of help?
A. I hope it is all of help! One thing I have done each of the last few years is release a bill about a month or six weeks before our markup and invite comment. And that’s what I’ll do again. The goal is to try and help the department function more like businesses do in several key areas.
But I’ll see. If people don’t think it will help, I don’t want to pass a law just to say we passed a law. If it is going to make it worse, if it is not going to make it better, I need to hear that. If there are adjustments that need to be made, I need to hear that, so it really is invaluable to have this feedback mechanism ahead of time before we actually get to the markup of the bill.
Q. One huge issue across all the services seems to be the procurement of information technology. No matter how much you streamline the acquisition system, it still is going to be too slow to keep up with the rapid changes in software. Is it time for a whole new set of rules specifically for IT acquisition?
A. We have talked about that before — to have just a whole separate thing. It may not apply at least at the beginning for all of IT, but if you look at the way commercial businesses acquire IT, they have the same problem. So part of what I’m trying to do in this bill is to allow the Pentagon to purchase those things the way that businesses do. Online, for example. Now, if you’re going to buy a laptop that is going to be hooked up to classified systems, you have some special requirements. I’m not saying the department will ever be exactly like a commercial business, but there are a lot of things in commercial IT you can buy that you don’t have to have special requirements. … Getting things efficiently is important, but getting things faster is even more important in today’s world, I think. So I’m trying to help the department move in that direction with this bill.
Q. Former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put a lot of emphasis on seeking innovation by setting up the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) and other rapid prototyping organizations. Do you see that continuing?
A. I think the goal of all of those things is exactly right. We have to not only invest, but develop these key technologies. The third offset was focused on artificial intelligence and robotics and those things. … We want to look to make all of these organizations as effective as possible. So I don’t think there will be any big push to do away with DIUx.
What we’ll try to look at is: Is it being as effective as possible? If not, what can we do to improve it?
I do worry that in order to get innovation we create new organizations to get around the main organization. So part of what we have to do is make the main organization better. So that gets back to what we were talking about with agility and being able to buy things faster. So I think it is important to have these special authorities, Strategic Capabilities Office and all those things that go around the rules, but we also need to streamline the rules so we can lift all these boats.
Q. What can Congress do to help small businesses get their foot in the door with the Defense Department?
A. I was just having a meeting recently on the [Small Business Innovation Research] program, which I think a lot of people will say is really successful in funding research, but not as successful at translating that into programs of record. So I do think we have got to put some attention there. Every year we work with the Small Business Committee and look for opportunities to take advantage of the innovation, the skills that brings to it, but still some of these programs that have some success, have had these issues and so we have to look for ways to improve them.
Part of what we need to do is not make it so hard to do business with the Department of Defense because that will just rule out small- and medium-sized businesses, where a lot of the innovation occurs. … I at least have a sense of urgency because I’m afraid they will get frustrated and quit trying with our Department of Defense. I see what our adversaries are doing. And we have got to speed this whole thing up.
Q. I spoke with someone yesterday with years of experience in the private sector who said the problem with the Defense Department acquisition system is that the program managers are just overseeing a process, with no emphasis on outcomes. What do you think?
A. Again you will never have government run exactly like a business because you don’t have that sink-or-swim profit measure to go by, but among other things, we can streamline the decision-making at the Department of Defense, which we have made a start on and we’re going to do some more. And if we can develop a partnership with the new administration on doing that, we can be much more effective. Because what we have been trying to do before in streamlining the bureaucracy and the decision-making, we have done basically against the wishes of the department. If we can have a partnership, then we can be much more effective.
The key is leadership and I think Secretary [James] Mattis is very sympathetic with these ideas.
Q. The so-called Trump “skinny budget” had big cuts to basic and applied research. Some call that selling your seed corn. What’s your take?
A. When I watch what other countries are doing and how they are investing — the capabilities they are investing in — in some cases they are ahead of us. So we cannot be pennywise and pound foolish here. I think if you again look at the vote the Senate took today and we took yesterday, all of those proposals to cut … all of those things were rejected. So I think there is widespread agreement in Congress that there are keys areas of research that we have to fund. And it is certainly true in the Department of Defense.
We have got to maintain that R&D funding in order to, not only keep up with the adversaries, but to have the capability that will deliver the best in the hands of our men and women who are risking their lives for us. We just can’t do less.
Q. And what are the prospects for another round of Base Realignment and Closures? We know the military would like it. Have you heard from the White House that it wants one?
A. I haven’t. I suspect there will be a push to have another BRAC. And we’ll look at that. As long as I’m around, we will not have a repeat of 2005 — the last time we had a BRAC round. The last time I checked, which has been about a year, it still had not broken even yet 12 years later. So we’re not going to do that.
We also want to have a feel for the size of the military before you close things down. Because once you close a base, you will not get it back.
I also want to explore whether there needs to be some additional authority or money to close down facilities within bases. My sense is a lot of where you hear [about] excess infrastructure, it’s an old outdated facility that they still have to heat and air condition, but they would like to tear it down and consolidate, for example. So I think we need to look at all of those options. But I will not rule out another BRAC. If we have one, it will be a lot narrower and more specifically defined than the last one, which has left a bad taste in a lot of people’s mouths, including mine.