The former head of the F-35 program said better managers are necessary to improve program acquisition. (Maj Karen Roganov/US Air Force)
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WASHINGTON — The processes that govern — and often stymie — how the US military buys weapons could be the biggest threat to America, a former Pentagon official said Tuesday.
Brett Lambert, until recently the Pentagon’s industrial policy chief, told the House Armed Services Committee that US officials cannot “let our bureaucratic processes become our own most dangerous enemy.
“Make no mistake, while we focus on providing our forces with increasingly detailed and thorough audits, our adversaries gain ground on us technologically,” Lambert, now a National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) senior fellow, told the panel. “If it is my daughter in harm’s way, I have less concern with the thoroughness of an incurred cost audit and more concern with the quality and technological superiority of her equipment.”
Lambert touted the relationship between the Pentagon and US weapons manufacturers as long giving the United States a tactical advantage on the battlefield. But, he warned, existing regulations and buying guidelines might soon threaten that advantage.
“Our war fighters should never advance on an enemy only to find them better equipped due to less burdensome regulations or more reasonable audit policies,” Lambert said. “The advantages that have enabled American pre-eminence are not a birthright, and key elements of the industrial base that are necessary to ensure dominance on future battlefields must be sustained and nurtured.”
Ronald O’Rourke, specialist in naval affairs with the Congressional Research Service (CRS), told the committee that the level of understanding about what buying practices really work well is a “sector-by-sector” matter.
For instance, the shipbuilding sector understands what works for it, he said, but other sectors do not.
Among O’Rourke’s list of findings presented to the committee was one about the length of time program managers remain on the job.
“My observation of Navy and other DoD acquisition programs over the last 30 years gives me the impression that long terms of office for program officials can be a key contributor to achieving success in defense acquisition programs,” O’Rourke said.
“Program officials with long terms of office understand that they will still be in office years from now, and consequently that they will be held personally accountable for the results of decisions they make, at least those they make during their earlier years in office.
“By contrast, officials with shorter terms of office face less risk of being held personally accountable for the results of their decisions, because those results may not become manifest until after their terms in office are complete,” O’Rourke said. “Indeed, they might even feel an incentive to make decisions that achieve what they view as near-term success for a program — such as getting a program started — even if those decisions increase the program’s risk of experiencing execution problems later.”
O’Rourke and other witnesses urged the lawmakers to think about unintended consequences of acquisition-reform laws or provisions they may write. They also urged a focus on the root causes of DoD’s acquisition woes.
Altering the way the Pentagon buys weapons, and shedding red tape, will be a “huge, monumental task,” committee Chairman Rep. Buck McKeon, R-Calif., told Lambert and other witnesses. “We’re just talking about defense. But this is much broader. It’s throughout our entire country. We’ve brought in so much bureaucracy, so much red tape.”
To that end, there has been a running joke in Washington defense circles for years about how many DoD acquisition reform studies line book shelves around town — collecting dust.
“We’ve all heard the quote, ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’,” McKeon said. “Perhaps there is no better example of this futility than defense acquisitions, where the same reform efforts have been tried again and again for more than 70 years.
“I want to break this cycle of failed acquisition reform by learning from those that traveled down this path before,” said McKeon, who is retiring early next year. “That’s what this hearing is about.”
McKeon called some DoD acquisition practices “lunacy.”
Lawmakers and Pentagon officials need to move quickly to “remove all the barriers to be more streamlined … and more focused on getting things done,” McKeon said.
The outgoing chairman’s concerns led him to task panel Vice Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, to head up, as McKeon describes it, “a long-term effort to streamline management of Department of Defense by eliminating unnecessary overhead and reducing the complexity of the regulatory environment.”
Thornberry has said the results of his study should be ready to inform the committee’s work on the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
With McKeon leaving Congress in seven months, it will be up to Thornberry, the leading contender to replace him as chairman, and other lawmakers to usher in defense acquisition reforms.
Notably, among the witnesses was a former head of the often-troubled F-35 fighter program.
Retired Vice Adm. David Venlet told the committee that his written testimony focused on “nonspecific” program findings and recommendations.
“Nonspecific here is not meant to avoid specific program criticism but to focus on causes and hopefully effective things to do for better outcomes for every program now and future,” he wrote.
The F-35 program during his tenure managing it, but also before and since, has received plenty of criticism for being substantially over budget and significantly delayed.
To Venlet, what’s needed are better people, which he called “the heart of the matter for getting to a state of dependably better performing programs.”
Officials and lawmakers should “focus on people doing acquisition in both government and industry.
“The focus goal is to create an increasing population of people with demonstrated commitment to the practice of fundamentals, transparency and realism at all levels of career progression,” he said. “That will produce better outcomes.” ■