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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Defense Procurement: Congress Continues to Search for Answers
Defense Procurement: Congress Continues to Search for Answers
By Sandra I. Erwin

It boggles the minds of Washington lawmakers that the same Pentagon that produced some of the U.S. military’s most celebrated weapon systems also is responsible for so many failures.

Even in this day of deeply divided government, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree that there are fundamental flaws in how the Pentagon buys weapons systems. Beyond that, there is little consensus on what can be done about it. Congress passed sweeping legislation in 2009 to reform weapon acquisitions, but piles of new rules have done little to control rising costs and keep programs on schedule.

In search of answers, the House Armed Services Committee is conducting a yearlong probe of the defense procurement system.

"I want to break this cycle of failed acquisition reform," HASC Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., said at a June 24 hearing where experts were asked to explain why some military programs deliver as promised while others do not.

There are no magic remedies, noted Brett B. Lambert, senior fellow at the National Defense Industrial Association who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for manufacturing and industrial base policy.

Rigid rules and an industrial-age culture do not allow the Pentagon to adapt to rapid changes unfolding in the defense industry, Lambert said in written testimony.  "Budgets, changing technologies, and emerging threats can make this year’s acquisition success story next year’s poster child for failure, and vice versa."

The Pentagon should take immediate steps to change obsolete acquisition policies and understand the new realities of the defense industrial base, he said. "As defense budgets flatten or even decrease, our base will become more global, more commercial, and more financially complex."

Outdated acquisition policies — where the U.S. government dictates inflexible rules — reflect the "flawed notion that if the department simply wrote a large enough check, industry would magically provide for its every need," Lambert said. "While decades ago the majority of the goods and services the Department procured were defense-unique, today the ratio is reversed."

While many of the technologies the Pentagon buys were developed in the commercial sector or outside the United States, he said, defense procurement still treats products as if they were being produced exclusively for the government.

"Part 12 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) already enables the department to buy advanced commercial systems and services but it is far too often bypassed in favor of the more established and comfortable government-unique source selection policies of FAR Part 15," said Lambert. "The commercial trend is one the department has recognized more in policy than in practice."

The changes across the industry are "profound and disruptive, and our acquisition practices have not yet effectively adapted to it," he said. "When it comes to acquisition, the department continues to assume it is the dog, not the tail of a market. Increasingly that is the wrong assumption."

The Pentagon's bureaucratic processes are becoming "our own most dangerous enemy," said Lambert. "The defense acquisition system must get our war fighters what they need, when they need it."

Most of the technological innovations the military needs will not come from government-funded research. The Pentagon reimburses defense companies about $4.5 billion a year for research work. But a greater source of innovation will be research from the larger private commercial sector, and the Defense Department is not tapping those resources as it should, said Lambert.

Former Deputy Defense Secretary Bill Lynn said commercial content in defense has risen from 10 percent to 30 percent over the past several years. "The defense sector will have to become more of an importer than we've been in the past," he said June 11 at the Center for a New American Security. "We need an industrial structure to do that, and we need the Defense Department to lower the barriers to entry to allow technology to move into defense."

Acquisition reform has been an "overwhelming challenge, and you just have to chip away at it," he said. "We shouldn't just look at improving cost and schedule performance.”

But not everyone at the Pentagon is sold on the shift to commercial technology. "It's been overplayed," said William A. LaPlante, the Air Force’s top acquisition executive. "The idea that you can do some of these things completely commercial is a misunderstanding," he said June 13 at the Atlantic Council. Buying a military surveillance aircraft, for instance, requires a considerable amount of sensitive technology that is not commercially available, he said. "It's not as easy as buying a commercial airframe and slapping a radar on it. ... Sometimes we convince ourselves that something is easy based upon what we see commercially. We need to be careful about that."

The Internet revolution might have led many people to believe that weapon systems could be built like software apps, he suggested. "There are places where commercial has not translated as easily. ... A simple change of where to put a sensor can require structural change to the airplane. The commercial jet you thought you had is not a commercial jet anymore."

Photo Credit: Thinkstock


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