As discussed here previously, reform will take center stage this spring as the Senate Armed Services Committee (HASC) reviews the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986. Not surprisingly, acquisition reform played a major role in recent expert testimony before the committee. According to the handy spreadsheet organized by Mark Cancian of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, fifteen witnesses offered twenty-four separate recommendations. These recommendations range from the banal (“run DoD like a business, take more leaders from industry”) to the radical (“immediately cut every program behind schedule or over budget”).

Not to be outdone by his Senate counterparts, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry recently released a set of reforms to the Pentagon’s beleaguered acquisition system. This is the second year in a row Congressman Thornberry has made acquisition reform proposals. My colleague Joshua Hampson has already highlighted potential problems with the recommendations on prototyping and modularity in the recently released draft of the Acquisitions Agility Act.

In a recent op-ed for RealClearDefense, Alexander Kirss, a resident junior fellow at the Center for the National Interest, and myself look at the problem from different angle. We share the concerns that Hampson highlighted in his blog posts about a one-size-fits all approach to modularity, and about getting prototyping right, but many acquisition problems start with the military services’ role in the definition of system requirements.

From our piece:

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.

Of the twenty-four acquisition recommendations Cancian highlights, only one offered by Bryan Clark of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary addresses this problem. According to Clark:

Acquisition reform initiatives being pursued by DoD and Congress focus on improving accountability, but the most significant hindrance to developing affordable systems on time and budget is the requirements process. By defining requirements for new acquisition programs in isolation from technical or fiscal considerations, DoD makes it more likely new systems will use immature technologies while costing more and taking longer than expected. Further, rather than defining requirements and then allowing the acquisition system to develop a range of solutions to different elements of those requirements, DoD currently writes a set of requirements tailored to each new system, essentially eliminating the competition of ideas that might otherwise ensue.

One of the major reasons why this occurs is that the organs used to define requirements, such as the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, institutionalize service logrolling. As James Locher, who helped shepherd Goldwater-Nichols as a SASC staffer, wrote about its effect on acquisition in an otherwise positive assessment of the legislation, “But the services continue to fund Cold War systems, cannot seem to break their attachment to them, and the Joint Requirements Oversight Council has rubber-stamped the services’ choices.”

The output of any acquisition system is almost entirely dependent on what goes into it. As SASC continues its review of Goldwater-Nichols, and as Congressman Thornberry refines his acquisition reform legislation, breaking up the service cartel on the requirements process needs to be the priority.