From the beginning of his tenure as Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), Representative Mac Thornberry (R-TX) has dedicated himself to reforming the Pentagon’s convoluted acquisition process. His efforts have focused on streamlining the research, development, purchase, and fielding of cutting-edge capabilities that ensure the military’s readiness to confront a variety of global threats.
Thornberry’s most recent reform effort, released this week as the Acquisition Agility Act, is an admirable attempt to confront an intractable issue. It falls short, however, because it fails to address the deeper issues driving dysfunction in the defense acquisition system.
Thornberry has highlighted a series of problems plaguing the current acquisition process. These include a “one-size-fits-all” process that is difficult to tailor to the development of specific capabilities, the individual services’ avoidance of responsibility for acquisition failures, and a general lack of transparency. The HASC chairman’s reforms seek to increase the flexibility of the acquisition process. Modular, open-system architectures, Thornberry argues, would enable the separate development of major platforms and their components, and delegating milestone decision authority to the military services, while establishing an acquisition scorecard, will allow both Congress and the Department of Defense to assess the progress of major programs and hold the services accountable.
Thornberry’s reform efforts do not go far enough to correct the major problems with the acquisition process. Because the deeper issues underlying dismal acquisition performance are either misdiagnosed or swept under the rug, the proposed reforms fail to target the root causes of dysfunction.
Consider three shortcomings in the acquisition process. First, there is the bureaucratic log-rolling by the services that occurs within the requirements definition process and leads to the gold-plating of desired capabilities, which can’t be executed. Second, when requirements are defined, there is tendency to not analyze alternative that leverage existing capabilities. Third, it does little to mitigate post-Cold War consolidation of the defense industry that has limited effective competition among contractors, which, in turn has led to inappropriate government-private sector relations and higher prices.
Thornberry’s proposed reforms do little to address these problems, and in some cases would exacerbate them. For instance, the proposals to delegate milestone decision authority for joint programs to the services, and to give Congress greater oversight relative to the Secretary of Defense, would do little to hold the services accountable throughout the acquisition processes. Involving Congress, primarily through the use of an acquisition scorecard, diminishes the technical role that the Office of the Secretary of Defense plays in adjudicating inter-service disputes and finding tradeoffs. Moreover, it heightens the prospect of domestic politicization of the acquisition process—with members of Congress more likely to side with the services’ parochial interests if they serve their own.
Decoupling platform development from component development through a mandate for modular, open-system architectures has its downsides as well. On the one hand, modularity has the potential to save money by allowing for the sequential development and easier updating of advanced technological systems. On the other, it creates more access sites for contractors to insert their own external interests by pushing costly component upgrades that do not necessarily enhance system performance. Moreover, by mandating modularity, Congressman Thornberry would replace one “one-size-fits-all” system with another.
Thornberry’s advocacy of experimentation and emphasis on prototyping similarly cuts both ways. Relaxing the protocols for competitive bidding on the follow-on enactment of prototypes would certainly incentivize contractors to embrace experimentation and potentially shoulder the up-front costs of prototyping. Doing so, however, could increase the back-end price tag of implementation, as contractors seek to recoup initial investments by pushing capabilities that provide a “wow” factor to government clients but do not fill a demonstrated operational need.
Moreover, while incentivizing experimentation could lead to innovation, it could also reinforce the existing “sell-anything” pathology present in the defense industry. Defense contractors serve their customers’ wants and needs. Reforms should therefore first and foremost encourage greater experimentation within the military services themselves rather than incentivizing contractors to independently generate new capabilities that may be of questionable actual value.
Raising these concerns is not meant to impugn the hard work Representative Thornberry and his staff have devoted to acquisition issues or the intent behind their reforms. They are tackling a tough issue and putting forth a plan for improving the acquisition process while knowing that any such plan will inevitably draw criticism. As they move forward with their reform proposals though, Thornberry and his team needs to pay greater attention to military service logrolling, be more awareness of the pitfalls of modularity, and think harder about providing the military its own incentives to experiment.
Matthew Fay is a defense policy analyst at the Niskanen Center and a PhD student in the political science program at George Mason University’s School for Policy, Government, and International Affairs. Alexander Kirss is a Resident Junior Fellow at the Center for the National Interest. He holds an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Chicago.
Op-ed by Matthew Fay; originally in RealClearDefense