How Pentagon Contracting Is Killing the Military’s Technological Edge

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How long does it take to buy a new handgun? More than a decade, if you’re the U.S. Army.

What sounds like the set up to a bad joke is all too real in the world of Defense acquisition. It took the Army 10 years to develop and rewrite requirements for a new handgun when, in 2005, the service set out to replace the M9 Beretta pistol soldiers had carried for decades. The first draft of the Army’s 350-page request for proposals (not counting 23 attachments) issued in 2015 somehow neglected to identify key requirements, such as the caliber of the weapon. As chronicled in a new report on Defense acquisition, “the paperwork alone added an estimated $15 million or 20 percent to procurement cost.” Ruger, a leading manufacturer, was so put out by the costly and complex process of selling to the government that the company chose not to even compete.

That’s just one example from the congressionally-chartered Section 809 Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Regulations of how the arcane and convoluted federal procurement process is costing taxpayers and hurting the military’s ability to field the most effective force. The panel of 18 commissioners, all highly experienced in Defense acquisition, was established in September 2016 to recommend specific and far-reaching changes to the regulatory and legal framework that governs Pentagon purchasing.

Testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Deidre Lee, a longtime government procurement specialist and the panel’s chair, said the Defense Department is at “a critical inflection point,” where national security threats are outpacing its ability to harness the needed capabilities to counter those threats. At the same time, the department has less leverage on a marketplace now largely dominated by commercial buyers. For example, where Defense used to account for more than 90 percent of all semiconductor purchases, today it accounts for less than 0.5 percent of the global market.

Defense acquisition has been a perennial challenge for reform-minded military officials and lawmakers, including HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. When Thornberry asked Lee and the other advisory group commissioners testifying before the committee if the acquisition system is today worse than in the past, Lee didn’t hesitate: “Yes, sir.”

William LaPlante, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, was equally blunt: “Our ability to deliver things quickly to the warfighter is worse than it’s ever been.”  

The 809 Advisory Panel’s interim report is full of the kind of horror stories many in government have become inured to, such as this gem: “The process of getting to the full deployment decision for the Army’s global combat support system required a total of 33 documents, amounting to 1,076 pages for the main documents and 17,604 pages for annex documents—a final product that was more than 14 times the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but not as well written. Altogether, this documentation took 1,853 calendar days (more than 5 years) to complete.”

The report emphasizes that reform will require a transformation in the culture of DoD and Congress:

Rules and regulations alone, however, can no more foster the right culture than legislation can force good management. The workforce of today understands the message that has been sent to it through multiple layers of bureaucratic review, budget cuts, hiring freezes, salary freezes, furloughs, continuing resolutions, damning congressional hearings, and press releases and speeches castigating government workers as overpaid and underperforming.  

“All these events exact a toll on the morale of the acquisition workforce. At some point people, motivated by their desire to serve the country and the men and women defending it, feel frustrated in their efforts to make a difference and do not feel empowered with respect to work processes. The workforce deserves a better system.

Whether the group’s final recommendations, expected in 2018, will result in significant change is anyone’s guess. As the panel itself noted in its report, there have been more than 100 reports, studies, and analyses of how DoD acquires goods and services over the last five decades. “From these reports, the lesson learned is clear: Tinkering and incremental approaches to acquisition reform have not provided the necessary results and are especially ineffective in today’s rapidly changing environment. In fact, incremental approaches have exacerbated problems with the acquisition system by adding more layers of sign off, mountains of paperwork, and hundreds of additional regulations.”  

On Thursday, Thornberry planned to introduce new legislation aimed at streamlining Defense acquisition.

Image via Glynnis Jones/Shutterstock.com.

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