The Trouble With Defense Acquisition May Be the Workforce

The Pentagon often fails to buy weapons on time and on budget. Above, an F/A-18F Super Hornet prepares to land on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf Oct. 3. The Pentagon often fails to buy weapons on time and on budget. Above, an F/A-18F Super Hornet prepares to land on the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf Oct. 3. Specialist 3rd Class Joshua Card/U.S. Navy

If you asked 31 knowledgeable people how fix the way the Pentagon buys weapons you’d expect to hear a multitude of answers aimed at addressing the cost overruns, program delays and failures to deliver promised capabilities that have come to define military procurement. What you might not expect is widespread agreement -- 70 percent -- that one significant problem is the Defense Department’s acquisition workforce itself.

Without better training and recruiting of the men and women who manage large weapons contracts, and more effective incentives to reward smart decision-making, the department may be doomed to continue spending too much money for too little return. That was the conclusion of the vast majority of experts -- industry titans, engineers, weapons buyers and military leaders -- consulted by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s permanent subcommittee on investigations.

On Oct. 2, the panel’s bipartisan staff released a compendium of the experts’ views in essay form in a 214-page report, “Defense Acquisition Reform: Where Do We Go from Here.” Investigations Subcommittee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Ranking Member John McCain, R-Ariz., said the findings would inform the Senate’s ongoing efforts to reform the Defense acquisition process.

The subcommittee found four themes emerged from the experts’ views, two of which related to the acquisition workforce: the need to create better incentives for acquisition personnel and the need to improve recruiting and training.

“Several of the experts consulted report that many program managers in major defense acquisition programs do not remain in their positions long enough to manage the program to its successful deployment or even to a major milestone. As a result, DOD may be unable to hold program managers accountable for those failures,” the report found. Christine Fox, the Pentagon’s former director of cost assessment and program evaluation, noted "there are no career incentives for acquisition managers to say that their program is not progressing well, it is not worth the money, and should be slowed or canceled." 

Ronald Fox, former assistant secretary of the Army responsible for procurement and contracting, put it more bluntly: “As long as defense acquisition is largely in the hands of managers for whom it is merely one step in a career path directed elsewhere, we will continue to see the same quality, cost and scheduling problems.”

In an effort to address the problem, the Defense Department in 2007 required top program managers to sign tenure agreements stipulating they would remain in their position through major milestones within four years. But many of the experts consulted by the subcommittee, including Frank Anderson, former president of the Defense Acquisition University, said he didn't believe the requirement was enforced. Other experts felt the agreements should be required of other acquisition personnel beyond program managers to improve accountability.

A number of experts said they thought Defense should “create a clear career path for acquisition professionals similar to the military promotion system and designate acquisition billets to be on the same level as operational billets,” the report noted.

Irv Blickstein, a senior engineer at RAND Corporation, noted that the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act, which embodied the most sweeping military reforms in the department’s history, had the unintended consequence of driving a wedge between the operational side of the military and the civilian-centric acquisition side.

“That wall continues to confound sound decision-making to this day,” Blickstein said.      

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