Chorus Growing Louder: Military Brass Should Oversee Weapon Acquisitions
By Sandra I. Erwin
It has become the rallying cry of defense procurement reformers: Put military officers back in charge.
Partly to blame for the dysfunction and poor performance of current Pentagon programs, they contend, is a 1986 law that turned over the procurement chain of command to civilians and gutted the generals’ authorities to influence buying decisions.
In hindsight, the legislation known as Goldwater-Nichols had benign intentions: To promote collaboration and sharing of resources among the branches of the military. But in doing so, it set in motion a chain of reorganizations that created an environment where everyone is in charge, but no one is held accountable for bad decisions, reform advocates say.
Twenty-six years and 300 acquisition reform studies later, a Pentagon advisory board has recommended a return to the days when the chiefs of the military services had more say in what programs lived or died, and also could be held accountable when things went awry.
The chiefs oversee budgets and requirements — a complex process of writing the documentation that gives legitimacy to a program — but are not responsible for the project’s performance. If they were, experts insist, they would have strong incentives to not let big-ticket boondoggles derail their careers.
The United States continues to waste untold billions of dollars on weapons programs that either fail or end up costing far more than their budget estimates, says a study by the Defense Business Board, an advisory group of retired officers and industry executives. The group, which endorsed the idea of reversing Goldwater-Nichols, recently presented its findings to the Pentagon’s senior leadership.
Procurement programs run amuck and yet nobody is held accountable, the study says. To a degree, because of Goldwater-Nichols, the oversight of acquisition projects has never been greater, and yet nobody is truly responsible, the panel concludes. “In the last 10 years, the department has walked away from over $50 billion in weapons that either did not work or were overtaken by newer requirements given the average 15-18 year development cycle. We were unable to determine if anyone was ever held accountable for this $50 billion of expenditures that went to the dustbin of history,” writes Retired Marine Corps Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, chairman of the DBB.
“A wall has emerged between military-controlled requirements and civilian-controlled acquisition processes to the overall detriment of the outcomes resulting in a reduction of accountability,” he adds.
At a time when the Defense Department is spending more than $400 billion a year on procurements, research and development, goods and services, “You need to move the needle in the other direction,” he says. “The service chiefs are insufficiently involved in the acquisition stovepipe.”
The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps should serve as honest brokers who can balance weapons requirements, budgets and program performance, the panel suggests. Keeping them segregated from the complex acquisition process has contributed to program failures that could have been avoided, the DBB says. “The barriers between military-controlled requirements and civilian-controlled acquisitions need to be removed.”
An avalanche of procurement reforms passed by Congress in recent years — and more to come in the fiscal year 2012 defense authorization bill — might only compound the problem by piling on new volumes of regulations, instructions and documentation on top of existing ones. Congress has told the Pentagon to hire more government procurement workers. But the DBB report suggests that there is no shortage of people, although they may not have the right skills. “The number of people – military and civilian – working and supporting in these areas is massive,” the report says. Civilians dominate the acquisition work force at 136,000 and military at 16,000. In addition, there are so many private-sector contractors supporting the acquisition work force that he DBB was not able to tally an accurate count. “No verifiable numbers” exist on the amount of contractors, the report says. “DoD’s best guesstimate is roughly 766,000 contractors at a cost of about $155 billion support DoD overall.”
The cost of weapon systems alone has soared despite reams of new regulations and added layers of management. The Government Accountability Office estimated the cost growth for 2011 is $135 billion with $20 billion due to decreases in quantities, $31 billion due to inefficiencies and other factors, and $13 billion due to research-and-development overruns.
“This total of cost growth is approximately the same as the entire DoD procurement budget for one year,” the report says. “Frankly it’s been happening for so many years that some have become desensitized to the issue of weapon system cost overrun.”
The DBB study calls for the Pentagon to “start over” and built a new procurement system from scratch.
The suggestion that military officers should be held directly accountable for procurement failures is echoed in other white papers by various commissions and think tanks, including a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. CSIS analysts suggest that Goldwater-Nichols was on point with the idea that more joint-service integration at the combatant commands was needed, but its impact on the acquisition system has been detrimental.
The Goldwater–Nichols Act started out as an attempt to bridge inter-service rivalries in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Lawmakers at the time blamed parochialism in the services for the failed hostage rescue mission in Iran in 1980.
Putting the military chiefs back in charge, however, will not magically end the wastefulness in the weapons procurement business, officials warn.
A retired colonel who recently briefed Pentagon contractors in an off-the-record meeting says many up-and-coming officers are unqualified to articulate equipment requirements, let alone oversee procurements. Many officers who are assigned to such jobs have academic credentials but are put in a tough spot when they are asked to write requirements for next-generation weapon systems, the retired officer says. Typically they don’t have enough data about the state of technology or up-to-date computer simulations, he says. Case in point is a new policy that military vehicles must be energy efficient. Requirements officers must analyze the impact of energy, he says, but have no analytical software tools to do that objectively.