Coping Mechanisms for D.C. Dysfunction

By Sandra I. Erwin
Government funding upheaval and unpredictable twists in procurement red tape have become the norm in the defense business. And there are no signs that this will change any time soon, despite repeated, impassioned pleas by four-stars and civilian leaders. 

Politicians have downplayed the consequences of living from one fiscal cliff to the next, noting that federal workers and service members have not missed a paycheck and the country somehow continues to function.

The narrative is quite different among those responsible for equipping military forces, maintaining weapons and keeping units combat ready. For them, the last seven years of budget turmoil have been nothing short of a nightmare.

“We’ve been seven years without a clear budget,” said Navy Vice Adm. David “Decoy” Dunaway, commander of Naval Air Systems Command. “We’ve had this uncertainty for seven years and it’s nearly impossible to efficiently spend your taxpayer dollars,” he told a reunion of naval aviators in Sparks, Nevada, at the Tailhook Association annual convention.

Why so much angst about unstable budgets? The military ultimately has gotten its funding every year, politics in defense spending are as old as the republic and inefficiency is par for the course in government. 

Military officials who manage weapon systems have been adamant that budgetary chaos has wreaked havoc on their programs and has had a cumulative effect over the years. One reason is that the Defense Department — because of its sheer vastness and complex organization — prepares its budgets months and years in advance of the annual deadline when it must be submitted to Congress. With budgets caught in political gridlock and the frequent use of temporary funding measures, military buyers are compelled to think short term, and are reluctant to sign contracts for goods or services that they can’t honor.

“We are working on the fiscal 2018 budget, not knowing what the 2017 or the 2016 budget is,” Dunaway said. This means that the Navy, for instance, can’t be sure whether it will have the funds to pay for new aircraft over the next three years at a time when the current fleet is reaching its breaking point. “We are now managing tail by tail on the margins and there is no place to go if we have problems.”

Navy leaders have been compelled to find ways to modernize the fleet without necessarily having to buy big-ticket items they can’t afford. One way to do that is to take existing weapon systems and make them do missions that they were not designed to do, by adding new payloads and equipping them with more advanced information systems, said Rear Adm. Michael Manazir, director of Navy air warfare on the staff of the chief of naval operations.

This approach is how the Navy plans to increase the reach and power of its carrier air wings. “We are looking for integrated and interoperable payloads and platforms. We’re buying just enough with the top line coming down, we stitch them together and bring integrated capability from the carrier decks,” he said. “If we integrate those properly, the synergistic effect of those platforms and payloads is going to be way more than the sum of each one.”

Manazir said he hopes to tap into private-sector innovation to “make our networks strong, provide more reach and increase the range of our airplanes.” More advanced networking and integration, he added, also will help the Navy make better use of existing flight training simulators. 

As if budget stalemates weren’t disruptive enough, the military is contending with an increasingly complex procurement system that keeps projects bogged down in paperwork for years. “It’s another thing that makes me nervous, the increasing bureaucracy,” Dunaway said. “It’s a problem across the Navy.”

You can’t fight city hall, so aviation maintainers have to get creative in order to keep airplanes flying. “We need to work outside the acquisition process with the existing equipment we have,” Dunaway said. “We can take advantage of latent capabilities without having to go through congressional notifications and go through a new-start acquisition program,” he continued. “We can integrate things outside of that world and create capability that is sorely needed on a day-to-day basis.”

The growing demands from overseas operations do not afford the luxury of a years-long procurement process, Dunaway noted. Fortunately for the Navy, he said, there are enough smart operators who can make things work regardless. “There’s a tremendous amount of latent capability in our organizations,” he said. “We need to unleash that capability.”

In response to past crises, for instance, Naval Air Systems Command technicians rapidly re-armored V-22 Osprey aircraft for the Marine Corps after they were damaged by enemy fire in North Africa. And they equipped P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft with modern surveillance cameras within a matter of weeks.

“We should do it like that always,” Dunaway said. To promote responsiveness to warfighting needs, he set up competing organizations within the command to take existing equipment, update it and send it back downrange faster.

“We need to teach ourselves to reach into that and tap that culture,” and not make excuses such as blaming the DoD 5000 [procurement regulations] or the budget cycle. Technically, if a new piece of equipment had to wait for the budget process to catch up, there would be no new gear until after 2018 because funding requests for 2016 and 2017 already have been submitted.

Naval aviators are learning a tough lesson about the Pentagon procurement machine as they try to get approval to buy a combat drone that would operate on aircraft carriers. The carrier aviation culture that for years had resisted the notion of an unmanned plane on the deck has finally come around to the idea, but the program is now stuck in acquisition limbo because Congress asked the Pentagon to study it further. “With unmanned aviation, there’s a much higher level of acceptance and excitement,” said Manazir. But it has become a political battle. “It’s hard to get something through the process.”

Topics: Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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