In Proposal to Congress, Pentagon Seeks Simplification of Acquisition Process

By Sandra I. Erwin

The goal is plain and simple: "Ease the burdens on program managers." That about sums up the gist of the acquisition reforms that the Defense Department hopes Congress will pass in 2016.

"Our legislative proposal is not a radical rewrite," said Andrew Hunter, director of the joint rapid acquisition cell. His office is at the center of ongoing exchanges with House and Senate leaders who criticize the Pentagon's weapons acquisition process as grossly inefficient.

Hunter is leaving the Pentagon next week to join the Center for Strategic and International Studies, but he expects the reform initiative he started with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will stay on track.

"We've come up with some proposals that we hope will be favorably received," Hunter said Oct. 23 during a meeting with reporters.

His boss, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall, wants the next round of reforms to attack questionable regulations and laws that keep weapons programs bogged down in red tape.

"We think we can reduce the burdens on program managers," said Hunter. That means possibly eliminating portions of legal statutes and Defense Department policies that create busywork without adding substantive value to a program. The mandate from Kendall is to scrub laws and regulations and identify items that, program managers claim, consume too much of their time and distract them from more important priorities.

Hunter has been trying to persuade congressional staffers involved in the reform effort that one of the keys to success in weapon acquisitions is "flexibility," he said. "Program managers should be geared on what they want to buy and not geared on the checklist" and bureaucratic drills.

The Pentagon will not be asking for major rewrites of landmark legislation such as the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 or the Competition in Contracting Act of 1984, Hunter said.

"Our recommendations build off foundational statutes, and keep the 'goodness' of the statutes." The changes sought would apply to individual provisions that procurement officials consider redundant or duplicative.

Whether and how this will be accomplished is still uncertain. Hunter said there are still "trust" issues between the Defense Department and Congress and it remains to be seen whether lawmakers are willing to take a leap of faith in rewriting rules that might increase the authority of the department to make decisions.

In a separate procurement reform effort, the Defense Department's rulebook, the DoD 5000, is being updated with new instructions on how to do "rapid" acquisitions. The new draft policy, called "enclosure 13," gives acquisition officials more detailed guidance on how to manage fast-track programs. "We talk a lot about rapid acquisition, there is a lot of enthusiasm and need," Hunter said. But many of the rules have been fuzzy on issues such as how exactly rapid acquisition should be done, compared to the traditional procurement process. "We have put those rules in place," he said.

The revised policy captures emergency procedures the Pentagon put in place for wartime procurements, such as drones and mine-resistant armored trucks.   

Most recently, the Pentagon used fast-track measures to equip the U.S. ship MV Cape Ray to destroy Syrian chemical weapons components. A land-based hydrolysis system was deployed on the ship in just five months. Hunter said the Cape Ray project is seen as the new poster child for how to move programs quickly.

Since the Pentagon created the joint rapid acquisition cell eight years ago, more than 500 urgent equipment requests have been handled. Thirty are still active.

Despite the success of wartime rapid acquisitions, Hunter recognized there is no easy way to shake up the lumbering non-emergency weapon acquisitions process. The current system cannot respond as quickly as the Pentagon would like, especially as new threats pop up, he said. "That's just life. It's not an indictment of the system.”

The defense industry is closely watching Defense Department and congressional reform initiatives, and has actively supported actions that would speed up the procurement process.

But the industry wants reforms to go further, to include specific measures that incentivize contractors to save the Pentagon money. It is widely accepted that change is needed, said Tom Captain, vice chairman and principal of Deloitte's aerospace and defense sector. “The problem is not what to do, but how to do it," he said. “We need cooperation and leadership amongst the three parties: Congress, the Defense Department and industry," he said.

Defense contractors would like to see reforms reach into areas where Congress has resisted, such as allowing the Pentagon to sign multiyear contracts with vendors and letting the private sector take on more depot maintenance work, Captain said. Reforms in the past have been "well intentioned, much of which has been said before, but hard to execute," he said. "Like many previous initiatives, it is not clear we are moving the needle of progress. We are still $300 billion over budget on the 99 major defense acquisition programs. Only 30 percent of programs are on schedule and budget," Captain noted. "Unfortunately, the commercial sector is negatively conditioned, and relations with industry are strained."

Topics: Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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