Speeding Up Acquisition Reform

Wartime urgency pulls back the red tape on accelerated projects.

After Sept. 11, when the likelihood of a U.S. attack on the Taliban grew every day, Director of Defense Research and Engineering Ronald Sega sought funds for rapid fielding of battlefield systems that he promised would be available within six months. With Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's approval and the flexibility provided when Congress approved emergency supplemental spending bills in September and October 2001, the Pentagon was able to meet Sega's needs. Some of the results were startling. Among them was the widely reported thermobaric laser-guided bomb, which after only two months of accelerated field tests, flushed Taliban and al Qaeda terrorists out of their mountain redoubts in Afghanistan.

In late in 2003, as American forces were being killed or wounded in Iraq on a daily basis, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz ordered the accelerated development of defenses against remotely detonated improvised explosive devices-the primary cause of casualties. The Pentagon shifted funds almost immediately both to accelerate programs already under way and to launch initiatives that previously had received no funding at all. While IEDs continue to take their toll, several new systems are being fielded in the Iraq theater.

The deployment of the thermobaric bombs and anti-IED devices demonstrates that Defense has the ability to accelerate its generally cumbersome acquisition system. Nevertheless, even with urgent requirements from field commanders in wartime, much more can be done. Not all systems the brass requested have reached the troops, even if funding was made available for rapid development and deployment. Red tape, as represented by the need to document every step of the acquisition process, continues to plague the system. Meanwhile, troops in the field continue to suffer casualties.

Every few years, a new Defense official announces a plan to reform and accelerate the acquisition cycle. And every reform seems to fail. Robert Gates, newly nominated to replace Rumsfeld, must take care not to repeat the same story. The problem is systemic, for all the reasons that have been listed time and again by think tanks and agencies. In particular, a culture that affords zero tolerance for errors deters bureaucrats from taking risks. Instead, they create endless paper trails to ensure that no one-not their superiors, or Congress, or the Government Accountability Office, or the media-will hold them responsible for failures, be they cost overruns, performance shortfalls or slips in testing or delivery schedules. But the failures occur anyway, as is inevitable with any technological development. The biggest losers are our forces, followed by the taxpayers, whose dollars seem to be frittered away for no useful purpose.

With the war in Iraq taking its daily toll and with the lessons of the few successful weapons deployments in mind, the Pentagon adopted a different approach to the long-standing acquisition challenge. Instead of attempting a complete overhaul of the system, the Pentagon created the Joint Rapid Action Cell to institutionalize the deployment successes of the past few years. Co-chaired by the comptroller and the undersecretary for acquisition, JRAC is meant to cut the usual cycle of documentation, meetings, budget papers and the like. Its special wartime provisions would ensure that requests certified by a general officer in the field and validated by the Joint Staff can be met with solutions within 120 days.

In theory, there is no reason to presume anything but success for JRAC. Every time the Defense comptroller and the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics worked in tandem to accelerate the system, it worked. Moreover, the context for JRAC would enlist the full support of both field commanders and the Joint Staff. Should JRAC succeed, it could become the prototype for changes in the manner that larger, more complex programs are fielded under the so-called normal acquisition cycle.

Nevertheless, success is not guaranteed and has been exceedingly difficult to attain. JRAC continues to struggle, particularly with the challenge of fielding systems faster than the development cycle of insurgents that threaten our forces in Iraq. The bureaucracy's zero tolerance continues to prevail in response to outside pressures. This culture also is manifested by the knee-jerk rejection of new ideas "not invented here," and a reluctance to support new programs at the expense of more established ones. So unless Congress, GAO, think tanks, the media and other "inside the Beltway" players give the system some leeway, JRAC will prove to be a big disappointment. And the biggest losers, of course, will be the men and women who operate in the face of fire.

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