Senate Report Showcases Top Thinkers on Defense Acquisition, But Legislative Path Ahead Still Unclear

By Sandra I. Erwin

The Senate permanent subcommittee on investigations last week published a211-page collection of essays written by Washington’s defense procurement gurus. The panel describes the report as a “comprehensive record on shortcomings in the acquisition process,” although no specific solutions are offered to fix these problems.

That military weapon acquisitions continue to be plagued by cost overruns and schedule delays is particularly frustrating to many lawmakers who expected major problems would end after Congress passed to great fanfare the 2009 Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act.

The title of the subcommittee’s report, “Defense Acquisition Reform: Where Do We Go From Here?” encapsulates such frustration.

Senators John McCain, R-Ariz., and Carl Levin, D-Mich. — ranking member and chairman of the permanent subcommittee on investigations — are longtime critics of the Pentagon’s procurement process. The report, which took about six months to compile, seems to reinforce the senators' conviction that further reforms are needed, even though they did not endorse any particular expert’s take.

How exactly the acquisition process might be overhauled is still unknown. On the House side, the presumptive future chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has been leading the charge. The committee convened many hearings on the topic and solicited input from Pentagon acquisition executive Frank Kendall and from several industry associations.

The release of the Senate’s subcommittee on investigations compendium is a clear sign that McCain intends to be a strong voice in the debate when Congress takes this up next year. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Levin is retiring, and he would be succeeded by Sen. Jack Reed, of Rhode Island, if Democrats are able to retain the Senate in November. If Republicans win the majority, McCain would take over SASC.

“Where Do We Go From Here?” makes no recommendations of its own, but McCain and Levin want it to inform future congressional deliberations and serve as a blueprint for action. The report also returns McCain to the spotlight as a key player in next year’s legislative debate on defense acquisitions. More so than Thornberry, McCain has been steadfast in his carping about waste in Pentagon weapon procurements. He has called for the termination of big-ticket projects and has consistently grilled defense officials on the rising cost of major weapons systems.

But nobody yet knows where lawmakers “go from here” on acquisition legislation. Public comments by Kendall and draft recommendations released by some industry associations suggest that proposals so far are pie-in-the-sky pronouncements, and turning them into actual legislation will be the tough part.

One takeaway from the compendium of essays is that everyone knows that the acquisition process has to change but there is no game plan yet for how to do it. The essays, although comprehensive and insightful, do not provide a how-to guide for fixing problems.

In the introduction to the report, the subcommittee recognizes that the solutions to troubled defense acquisitions are not likely to be accomplished through legislation because the problems are too endemic.  

“Among all those factors that have been identified as contributing to dysfunction in the defense acquisition system, cultural change is among both the most important and the least amenable to legislation and policy changes,” the report said. Changing this will require “leadership throughout the chain-of-command and an incentive structure that threads through both the government contracting and acquisition workforce and industry that assigns a premium to cost-control and the timely delivery of needed capability.”

The subcommittee summarized the views of the experts as follows:

• Nearly half stress that cultural change is required while over two-thirds believe improving incentives for the acquisition workforce is necessary for reform.
• Two-thirds of the contributors agree that training and recruiting of the acquisition workforce must be improved.
• Nearly half believe that DOD needs to ensure it has realistic requirements at the start of a major acquisition program that includes budget-informed decisions.
• More than half of the submissions noted the need for strong accountability and leadership throughout the life-cycle of a weapon system. Several experts also called for the military service chiefs to have greater authority in the acquisition process.

Topics: Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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