Army Acquisition: Not Broken and Not Fixed

By Harvey M. Sapolsky
The U.S. Army is prone to considerable introspection, and when it comes to reflecting upon its acquisition experience, which it does frequently, it is almost never happy.

The latest acquisition review effort is the so-called Decker-Wagner report, which says essentially what is usually said in such reports: Army acquisition is broken and it is going to take a lot of procedural changes, new organizational arrangements, and cooperation among the players to fix it. But we must.

With the report, Army management may be looking for absolution once more. Yes, it is broken again, but it is not our fault even though we have overseen the system and championed many of its previous reforms. Just adopt our 76 recommendations and we will have it flying right.

This seems wrong on two accounts. First, the report is unpersuasive in showing the acquisition system is broken. And second, the changes it suggests while perhaps beneficial are unlikely to produce much different results. The problems that beset Army weapon programs seem to lie elsewhere in the organization.

The Decker-Wagner panel concedes that the Army is surely the best equipped force in the world, but attributes that admirable state largely to “supplemental appropriations and rapid acquisition processes employed during the last nine years.” Army acquisition experience, they insist, is more normally described as plagued with cancelled programs, scheduled slippages, cost overruns and weapon performance disappointments. It is a system, the study claims, without respect within the Army’s leadership and among officials in the Pentagon, Capitol Hill and industry.  

How broken is Army acquisition? The panel provides no comparisons, but one should ask: is the Army any worse off than the Navy, Air Force, our allies or industry in this regard? The answer is surely no.

The Navy made a mess of its new destroyer project, had enormous trouble with the LPD-17 amphibious ship, reneged on its promise to have an open competition for the Littoral Combat Ship, and had to be totally embarrassed by its failure to complete the presidential helicopter, a multi-billion dollar fiasco.

The Air Force is no better off having had the long playing drama of the KC-135 refueling tanker replacement program, the cancelled procurement of the pride of the force, the F-22 Raptor, the struggle to field the Joint Strike Fighter, and a costly series of space system acquisition disasters.

The Europeans have had serious problems with helicopters, the Eurofighter, the A400M transport and a number of ship projects. And let’s not forget the delays Boeing encountered in delivering commercial airlines, including the 787. Occasionally one of these complex acquisition projects goes smoothly; the Navy’s F/A-18E/F fighter jet may be an example. No organization in or out of the Defense Department has cracked the code for assuring a steady stream of only successful acquisitions, which is the Army’s apparent aspiration.

The panel’s main evidence of a troubled acquisition process is the 22 programs it reports that the Army has had cancelled since 1995. The Army “lost,” in the panel’s view, over a quarter of the Army’s allocated development, testing and evaluation money, or about $32 billion for the period on these cancelled efforts. The bulk of the terminations have come after 2004 with the lost funds increasing to over a third of the Army’s allocation. It is less bad, however, than the panel implies. Just three programs — the Future Combat Systems, Comanche and Crusader — each with its own unpleasant history, account for nearly $28 billion of the $32 billion. The “loss” without these large failures is about five percent of the Army investment dollars, likely a pretty good mark for Pentagon work, one must admit.

Nevertheless, the panel sees the Army’s quest to equip soldiers as burdened by an unrealistic requirements-setting process and an acquisition system that is delay prone, inadequately manned and too distant from the needs of soldiers. It wants primarily to shorten the time it takes to approve and develop weapons and to make their costs fit the Army’s likely diminished budgetary prospects and avoid the waste of cancellations. The panel calls for the recovery of lost in-house analyst positions and for the expansion of the Army’s systems engineering capabilities. The Army, it recognizes, is full of bureaucracies that are responsible for elements of the process like requirements, contracting, acquisition management, testing and evaluation and that have been endowed in previous reforms with independent judgment, and with the power to delay and to complicate programs.

Decker-Wagner hopes through various suggested realignments, accountability measures, and commitments for attention by senior officers to instill a sense collaboration and urgency into the process. The Army, the panel argues, needs to set firmer priorities and to take on less risk in buying weapons.  

All are terrific ideas, and surely if implemented will help in some sense. But the nostalgia the panel expresses for the 1980s with its Big Five Army Programs — the Abrams, the Bradley, the Apache, the Blackhawk, and the Patriot — is a longing for a Golden Age that is going to be very hard to recreate.

Comanche and Crusader were holdovers from the Cold War, one a stealthy, heavily armed reconnaissance helicopter made of composite materials and slated to lead the way in tank battles, and the other a promise to the artillery community for its own big program that was handicapped in name and timing for the wars that we are still fighting in Muslim lands. The Future Combat Systems was a sadly transparent attempt by the Army to get beyond the Cold War by sweeping up all its networking and advanced technology concepts into one huge package, protected by its scale and faddish complexity, which politically savvy aerospace contractors were to help drag through the Congress.  

The Army’s problem is that it has lost the unifying threat it had in the Cold War, and has no replacement. Acquiring the Big Five was part of the climb back from Vietnam. The Army’s strategic focus after Vietnam became Europe and the Soviet armor threat. The overarching operational goal was building the capability to defeat an attack at the Fulda Gap, which gave each of the combat arms clear equipment priorities. With the Reagan build-up, the Army had the money to recapitalize the entire force.

The Future Combat Systems program was the product of the Army’s post-Cold War floundering. What was the threat and how could it be met? It turned out the FCS was not the answer to the insurgencies that came with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was money, but mostly for mine-resistant armored trucks and body armor. Beyond Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no clearly defined mission, and for this reason, the Army’s acquisition efforts will stay problematic with every program subject to endless debate over need and schedule. Does the Army really need this vehicle or that weapon system? Why not just an upgrade or, better yet, wait for the results of another technology review? Strategic urgency and focus just do not exist.

Frustration is the normal state for Army acquisitions absent a war or clear threat. The acquisition process requires programs to run a gauntlet of reviewers, evaluators, testers and budget competitors — each armed with a club and the authority to take a swing. Unintentionally perhaps, reforms usually involve issuing everyone bigger clubs and adding officials to the line. Wars allow programs to skip procedures, avoiding delays and damage by being excused from much of the gauntlet. Clear threats give people reasons to help rather than hurt programs, contributing to the commonly acknowledged Army mission and priorities.

The Decker-Wagner panel tried to fix a lot, but because the Army does not have a clear vision for its future, the panel has not fixed Army acquisitions.

Harvey M. Sapolsky is professor emeritus of public policy and organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and was formerly the director of the MIT Security Studies Program.

The full Decker-Wagner report can be found here.

Topics: Defense Contracting, Procurement, Acquisition Reform

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