HASC Chairman: Reform Needed to Avoid Future Acquisition Missteps
The new House Armed Services Committee chairman said he would be willing to get tough with F-35 manufacturer Lockheed Martin if necessary, but the program has become too vital to kill.
"With the F-35 we have no choice," Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., said Jan. 22 during a briefing to reporters. "Not only the United States, but many of our allies are dependent upon the F-35 being successful. It has to be successful. At the same time, we need to learn the lessons of why it has taken longer and cost more than we expected."
“I don't think there is an option of saying, 'Okay, never mind, we don't really need that plane anymore,’” he added.
The F-35 is one of several ongoing defense acquisition programs that have been plagued by cost overruns, schedule delays and other problems, he said. The Ford-class aircraft carrier — the first of which Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus recently called “a prime example of how not to build a ship” — and the littoral combat ship are others.
In the LCS’s case, "I think there are definitely lessons to be learned there as well as questions about the role that it should play,” Thornberry said.
One of Thornberry’s biggest concerns, he said, is a burdensome defense acquisition process that bloats costs and delays the time it takes to go from development to production. One of the problems with the F-35 was the complexity of its requirements. “They keep thinking of cool things it can do,” he said. In future programs, congressional oversight could inject discipline into the process and help streamline requirements.
“If it takes you 24 years to field a fighter aircraft, you're not keeping up,” he said. Even smaller, off-the-shelf items are not making it to troops in a timely manner. “There’s a reason why a lot of these guys, when they deploy, take their own cell phones with them or had to go buy their own body armor."
Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall will be the first witness to speak to the new House Armed Services Committee in a hearing that will look at acquisition reform and whether the United States is keeping up with changing technology, Thornberry said.
Research-and-development funding is easy to cut when money is tight but is necessary to create innovative equipment, he said. "I worry about shortchanging the investments we're making today that we will count on tomorrow." Areas that need continued resources include cyber security, space and technologies that detect and protect against biological threats.
The HASC chairman is already working with Kendall to eliminate duplicative acquisition regulations, he said. “We've made, I think, a lot of progress. Some of it he can do on his own. Some of it, he needs our help, but we've got a list, and we're trying to thin out and simplify the system to improve it."
Presumptive Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work also have a deep understanding of the workings of the Pentagon and the defense industry, both of which will be necessary to make meaningful changes to the way the Defense Department acquires new technology, he said.
“That gives us a very good opportunity to make some of the reforms that need to be made, and so I’m pretty optimistic at the chances of doing that,” he said.