Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., believes the Pentagon's staff is bloated.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., believes the Pentagon's staff is bloated. Brett Carlsen/Associated Press

Senate Defense Bill Lays Out Acquisition Reforms, HQ Personnel Cuts

McCain lauds trims of $10 billion in “unnecessary spending.”

The Senate’s version of the $612 billion 2016 defense authorization bill that cleared committee on Thursday treats shortfalls in the acquisition system as a national security threat while pressuring the Pentagon to accelerate planned reductions in headquarters personnel.

“This is a reform bill,” said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz. “It tackles acquisition reform, military retirement reform, personnel reform, headquarters and management reform. This legislation delivers sweeping defense reforms that rise to the challenges of a more dangerous world. We identified $10 billion of excess and unnecessary spending from the defense budget, and we are reinvesting it in military capabilities for our warfighters and reforms that can yield long-term savings for the Department of Defense.”

The headquarters staff cuts and purchasing reforms differ slightly from the House version of the bill, which passed that chamber on Friday.

“An acquisition system that takes too long and costs too much is leading to the erosion of America’s defense technological advantage, which the United States will lose altogether if the department continues with business as usual. In short, our broken defense acquisition system is a clear and present danger to the national security of the United States,” a committee summary said.

The bill’s acquisition reforms would pursue five objectives, including:

  • Clarify the role of senior officials to streamline decision making and promote accountability, while elevating the role of the service chiefs to decentralize authority;
  • Develop flexible alternative acquisition “pathways” to allow accelerated prototyping and field testing within five years, while allowing more acquisition authority to the U.S. Cyber Command;
  • Improve access to non-traditional and commercial contractors to encourage competition and innovation;
  • Reduce unnecessary requirements, reports and certifications to streamline purchasing of weapons, services and information technology; and
  • Improve the quality of the acquisition workforce by renewing its development fund and establishing direct-hire authorities for employees with science, technology, engineering and math skills.

Management Personnel Cuts

Both the Senate and House versions of the National Defense Authorization Act criticize Defense for failing thus far to submit a required plan for “downsizing and streamlining DoD management headquarters.” The Senate panel noted, for example, that “while staff at Army headquarters increased 60 percent over the past decade, the Army is now cutting brigade combat teams” and that from 2001 to 2012, the defense civilian workforce grew at five times the rate of active-duty military.

The Senate plan would reduce funding for “headquarters and administrative functions for military services, defense agencies, combatant commands, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Joint Chiefs of Staff by 7.5 percent for four years, totaling 30 percent by the fourth year.” That would save $1.7 billion in 2016 and $6.8 billion per year by the fourth year, the summary said. The legislation would require the Pentagon to submit an implementation plan by Jan. 1, 2016.

The House version would mandate implementation of the Pentagon’s own tentative plan to cut 20 percent of headquarters staff. “The department lacks a baseline from which to measure reductions against, as noted by the Government Accountability Office,” a House Armed Services Committee fact sheet said. “The committee shares the concerns expressed by the Secretary of Defense and other current and former senior defense officials that they need additional tools and flexibility to shape the workforce and to retain the best and brightest.” It asks the Defense secretary for a briefing on “any legislative authority or regulatory policies in place that limit the secretary’s ability to appropriately balance the military, civilian, and contractor personnel within the department.”

Contractors were apparently pleased with the Senate panel’s provisions. “There’s a specific emphasis on IT in the Senate bill, and they see the ability for the government to keep a technological edge as a national security imperative,” said Trey Hodgkins, senior vice president for public sector at the Information Technology Alliance for Public Sector at the Information Technology Industry Council. McCain takes “more of a deep dive” than the House version, which, he added, largely continues the approach to acquisition reforms offered in March by House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas.

The White House on May 12 threatened to veto the House version over macro issues such as war funding and continued sequestration. But its message noted that “the administration also appreciates many of the acquisition reform measures included in the bill and looks forward to continued cooperation with the committee on further progress in this area.”