Army Procurement Officials Push Back Against Negative Stereotypes
Army acquisition programs have been particularly hammered in recent years — especially since the 2009 collapse of the $200 billion Future Combat Systems. Think tank studies, news stories and members of Congress have pigeonholed the Army as an organization that persistently bungles projects at the expense of troops in the field.
These are unfair stereotypes, said Army officials who oversee procurement programs.
“There are a lot of naysayers who say the Army can’t deliver products,” complained Lt. Gen. William Phillips, military deputy for Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.
Phillips recently returned from a visit to U.S. troops in Afghanistan, where he received positive feedback from soldiers about equipment that they have received from the Army, he said. But back in Washington, D.C., “You hear the rhetoric that Army acquisition can’t deliver,” Phillips said March 2 during a meeting with reporters.
He offered an ardent rebuttal to the critics. “I can give you example after example” of programs that resulted in deliveries of important pieces of hardware, he said. In the past four years, the Army has shipped thousands of mine-resistant armored trucks, unmanned aircraft and light machine guns to war zones. It also has completed 60 upgrades of the M-4 carbine and improvements to every helicopter model in the fleet, Phillips said.
Two brigades in Afghanistan are being equipped with 760 new blast-survivable Stryker armored personnel carriers that were modified with a double-V hull that can withstand mine explosions. Phillips said another acquisition “success story” is the recent shipment of 15,000 blast-resistant pelvic protectors that have saved many soldiers’ lives.
“We’ve had issues in the past,” he said. “But it’s a myth that Army acquisition can’t deliver.”
The carping about Army programs reached fever pitch last year when a scathing study by former acquisition executive Gil Decker and chief of staff Gen. Lou Wagner painted a grim picture of the service’s procurement practices. It brought into sharp relief a culture of wasteful spending that puts bureaucratic banalities ahead of the needs of troops. According to the study, between 1990 and 2010, the Army mismanaged and terminated 22 major defense acquisition programs before completion, 15 of them since 2001.
Phillips said the Decker-Wagner report was valuable and is helping the Army rectify what it had been doing wrong. Of the study’s 76 recommendations, 63 are being implemented, Phillips said. Most of the reforms are either already in place or will be later this year.
Most notably, Phillips said, “We have revised the way we look at requirements.” Whereas past programs were designed with a money-is-no-object mentality, they now have to be “affordable,” he said.
A case in point is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, he said. After a requirements scrub, an original price tag of $500,000 per truck price dropped by half.
Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, Army deputy chief of staff for force development, said he, too, has been frustrated by the constant bashing of the acquisition corps.
“I watch my brothers and sisters in acquisition get beat up all the time,” he said. There are times when decisions that are made to save taxpayer dollars are still disparaged as proof that the Army “can’t manage programs,” Cucolo said.
As a former brigade and division commander in Afghanistan and Iraq, Cucolo said he can attest to the progress that the Army has achieved in many procurement efforts. When he was deputy commander of the 10th Mountain Division, for instance, Cucolo found himself in Afghanistan’s Bagram military base with no reliable line-of-sight communications to reach troops in forward-deployed outposts. “All I had to communicate was satellite,” he said. While in Iraq in 2010, he saw that every brigade had sophisticated communications networks, unmanned drones and full-motion video terminals.
“We can still do better,” he said. “I still want to get full-motion video down the platoon.”
But as they seek to redeem the Army from past procurement sins, Phillips and Cucolo face an uphill climb.
Even the Army’s chief of staff Gen. Ray Odierno has voiced concerns about troubled acquisition programs. “When I came in, the drumbeat I kept hearing was: ‘We have to change the way we buy equipment,’” Odierno told reporters last week. “We have to change, and we are changing,” Odierno said. The most significant lesson from past failures is that equipment wish lists have to be grounded in the real world, rather than in science fiction, he said. “We have gotten ourselves in trouble when we’ve tried to predict what technologies will be available 10 to 15 years from now, how fast they’ll get here and what impact they’ll have on the battlefield,” Odierno said. “We have to work closer with industry and be realistic about what we can do.”
The poster child of ill-fated military programs, the Future Combat Systems, has taught the Army many tough lessons, he said. “Matching requirements with technologies is key.”