Most observers know that the military has an acquisition problem. It is overly bureaucratized, cumbersome, and slow in an era when technology is advancing and proliferating at warp speed. The U.S. Army’s acquisition process is exemplary of these problems, with the service’s nine-year search for a new pistol symbolic of the dysfunction. The Army’s new chief of staff, General Mark Milley, thinks he has a plan to fix the system. And while it contains several commendable recommendations, changes are needed at the Department of Defense beyond a single service to make General Milley’s plan workable.
The Army plan was delivered to Congress yesterday in the form of an eleven-page report. The report outlines new practices, such as a “command-centric” Army Requirements Oversight Council and greater emphasis prototyping and experimentation. However, the heart of the report is its call for new authorities. General Milley recommends the service be given more authority over its own acquisition programs by “de-layering oversight.” According to the report,
Major defense acquisition programs have multiple layers of oversight, often leading to long cycle times for staffing, reviews, and decision-making. Much of this oversight resides in the echeloned nature of the department and has been reinforced in previous legislation (e.g. Goldwater-Nichols). To fix accountability, decision-making authority should reside where accountability is expected—in this case, with the Services. The 2016 NDAA made significant progress on this and gave the Services milestone decision authority for programs unless the programs are joint or [Office of the Secretary of Defense] special interest. However, authority for technology readiness level certification, testing determination, independent cost assessment (ICE), and analysis of alternative approval remain with OSD.
To remedy that last part, the Army is asking for authority over all those aspects of the acquisition process: technology certification, cost estimation, analysis of alternatives, and decision authority.
There are good reasons to give the military services the types of the authorities the Army is requesting. The current centralized acquisition system creates information gaps between the users of weapon systems and those responsible for making decisions about them. The layers of bureaucracy and mountains of regulations create compliance costs that make expensive weapon systems even more expensive. Shortening the decision-making chain between acquisition planners and the users of acquisition programs can help lead to better decisions about how to spend defense resources.
That said, there are very good reasons to be skeptical about the accountability measures the report recommends. And the reason for skepticism is that it does not really provide any. The Army report uses accountability more or less synonymously with authority. But the two are not the same thing. The report seems to assume that once given proper authority, the Army will simply act responsibly. Logic and history suggest otherwise. Speaking yesterday at the New America Foundation’s “Future of War” conference, General Milley suggested a greater willingness to fire the managers of faltering programs would provide an effective incentive for discipline. However, given the limited amount of time military personnel spend in any one assignment, a program manager is likely to have moved on by the time problems emerge.
Accountability will have to come from the outside, but the form it takes is important. Simply re-layering bureaucracy in response to acquisition failures would return the acquisition in the same sorry shape it is in now. Budgetary incentives vis-à-vis the other services is one way to provide that accountability.
Last year’s National Defense Authorization Act included a proposal made by Senator John McCain to penalize Nunn-McCurdy violations—when a cost overrun of 15 percent occurs—by making the service pay three percent of the cost of the overrun to a defense-wide fund to develop prototypes. The proposal was a reasonable short-term step, but is unlikely to be sufficient over the long-term. Real penalties should include the possibility of losing budget share to other services that are running acquisition programs more successfully or providing innovative capabilities or doctrines. That type of penalty would provide something akin to market discipline within the bureaucracy.
General Milley’s request for greater authority over Army programs is well worth considering. However, his suggestion that the service will hold itself accountable alone defies reason. Instead, loss of budget share within to its fellow services can provide some incentive for self-discipline, without the mountains of red tape that are stifling the acquisition process today.