Buying Support

Can the Army reform procurement in time for the next war?

A recent report on the Army's in-theater contracting abilities might have appeared alarmist if it had surprised anyone. An independent commission used words such as "urgent," "systemic" and "crisis" to describe the service's contracting problems, but perhaps the most important two words in the panel's 106-page report were "unanimous accord." With lawmakers, military leaders and contracting personnel all on the same page about the pressing need for reform, will the Army be able to prepare for the next contractor-supported war?

The ongoing engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan are heavily contractor supported and few expect future wars to be much different. At a recent hearing, military experts were in complete agreement with Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who said the days of soldiers peeling potatoes, cleaning toilets and driving supply trucks were over. "Wherever we're going to be in the future, there will be a lot of civilians involved and a lot of contracting involved," says Jacques Gansler, chairman of the commission and former undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Despite this reality, the Army is struggling to manage contracts in support of ongoing fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq and to prepare to manage the role of contractors in the future. Gansler's panel, the Commission on Army Acquisition and Program Management in Expeditionary Operations, set forth a series of comprehensive recommendations. Some of the advice-such as increasing the size of the acquisition workforce-is nothing new. Most agencies are competing tooth and nail for a small number of contracting employees, and across the board are attempting to gain an edge through recruitment incentives and internship programs. Other panel recommendations, however, while broad and difficult to implement, could change the culture of the service.

Gansler talks a lot about culture and values, insisting that superficial reforms will not be effective until the Army learns to respect the contracting process and, most important, value its procurement corps. Many military experts agree that coming up with recommendations for reform is the easy part. "It's great for someone to say bank robbing should be ended, it's a little trickier to make that happen in an entrenched bureaucracy," says Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information, a security and defense-focused think tank in Washington.

But Gansler is hopeful. "All the literature on culture says two important things are required for change-recognition of a crisis and sustained leadership," he says. "I think there is recognition of a crisis here." In order for that acknowledgement to be channeled into change, Gansler says, the military needs to perceive war differently and prepare accordingly. Military leaders must interact with civilians supporting the force, and so the Army must respond with new training and more expansive exercises.

The commission said military leadership schools should prepare Army officers to deal with contractors in theater, particularly in order to communicate needs. Without contracting personnel on the scene to clarify requirements, military leaders need to learn the consequences of the "get me a truck, I don't care what kind, any truck" mentality. McCaskill says she saw this leadership failure firsthand when she heard a general say, "I don't care whether it costs $10 billion or $15 billion, I wanted the ice cream in the mess hall yesterday."

As leaders are taught how to define their requirements, communicate and oversee contractors in theater, these interactions need to be practiced as consistently as other wartime operations, Gansler says. He sees a good opportunity in the new Africa Command, which, he says, is operating under the assumption that there eventually will be some sort of political-military expeditionary operation in the region. "It's a good opportunity; when they start doing their exercises and their planning, they should recognize that there will be a lot of contractors there, that [the operation] would be together with the State Department" and the U.S. Agency for International Development, he says.

Day-in, day-out peacetime procurements also should be viewed as training opportunities, according to the commission. The report recommends that the Defense Contracting Management Agency take over the post-award management at bases, posts, camps and stations worldwide. DCMA would become the Defense Department's "worldwide contract management center of excellence." This would ensure that no one begins on-the-job procurement training in the midst of an expeditionary operation, a problem the panel identified. Gansler anticipates that the military services might resist the idea of outside management of their day-to-day operations, but notes DCMA could assign Army officials to Army bases, Air Force officials to Air Force bases, and so forth.

Wheeler says the Army also could benefit from private sector expertise: "I'd love to see someone from Wal-Mart in there; Wal-Mart has a fantastic logistics system. They deliver things on time every day of the year, always know exactly where everything is, and do so very efficiently and cheaply."

Part of the challenge the Army is facing is that wartime priorities are not always reflected in peacetime budgets. With major budget cuts in the 1990s, Army officials learned that when the nation is not at war, funds for a large acquisition workforce fall far down Congress' list of budget priorities. Army and Defense Department leaders will have to be adamant that such a cycle doesn't begin anew as operations in Southwest Asia come to an end. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., has said there is a consensus among lawmakers that the personnel cuts of the last decade might have gone too far, but Congress still might not implement some of the commission's recommendations. He says it will be up to military leaders to press the case that a robust contracting corps is vital.

Former Army procurement chief Claude Bolton, who resigned Jan. 2, 2007, pledged to add 1,000 civilians and 400 military personnel to the contracting workforce, but there has been little discussion of other changes. Some experts are urging more local contracting, in the current operations and as a future policy. While this is being touted as a way to ease logistics problems and contribute to nation building, it would require Congress to authorize exceptions to Buy America provisions and other special rules on what and how government can purchase. "When we're going into less developed areas, it's important that we help them so they don't have [an] increased rationale for insurgency," Gansler says. "It's also important to our troops to be able to get stuff fast. For us to have to come back here to get steel or textiles or whatever the case may be when they are locally available doesn't help our troops."

While procurement problems are plaguing the Army in particular, it's unlikely that any one service will be very successful without improvement across the Defense Department-from DCMA to military leadership schools to, most important, the department's overall financial management. Named an area of high risk by the Government Accountability Office, the department's poor money management hurts the business operations of all the military services. Gansler's commission did not address Defense financial issues, but Wheeler says it is absolutely crucial for the Army to move forward. "Financial management is arcane and boring and dull, but it is a fundamental problem, especially on an issue like this," he says. "The Army is a part of the Department of Defense financial management nightmare."

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