WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry said his committee will introduce legislation in March aimed at making changes to the Pentagon’s buying system.
The Texas Republican said Wednesday that he intends to introduce the bill to give members and the defense community time to provide feedback before HASC begins crafting its 2017 policy bill, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Thornberry shared the news at a HASC acquisition reform hearing Thursday that included several former Pentagon officials.
“The idea is that the people who have experience in the acquisition system can give us experience and feedback about how it can be improved before we mark up the defense authorization bill,” Thornberry said.
The legislation will follow hearings this month on the Pentagon acquisition system, which officials and lawmakers of both parties agree too often produces weapons far over budget and behind schedule — or leads the services to cancel them. Thornberry’s plan appears to mirror last year’s acquisition reform effort, which led to the introduction of a bill of which parts were included in the 2016 NDAA.
The Senate Armed Services Committee has been pursuing its own ambitious defense reform agenda under its chairman, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. The SASC's two-month inquiry last year was so broad and far-reaching that it is hard to know what the committee will target for 2017, though it has focused on the acquisitions system, the personnel system and the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986, which underpins the roles and responsibilities of no less than the defense secretary, the Joint Chiefs chairman, the service secretaries and service chiefs as well as DoD’s unified commands around the globe.
On the House side, Thornberry has said the current effort in the House is geared toward making the lumbering acquisition system more agile, so that the US maintains its edge in the face of rapid technological advances.
Last year’s NDAA shifted some accountability for acquisitions programs onto the chiefs of the armed services and included bureaucracy-streamlining measures. On Monday, Thornberry said he expected the bill to encourage more experimentation and prototyping earlier in the weapons development process, so that cutting-edge technologies are proven before they are included in a formalized and hard-to-kill program of record.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Thornberry said the committee is seeking to shorten and simplify the acquisition system to avoid programs that start in an unstable position by assuming too much risk and producing delays and cost overruns.
“Also, it’s hard to make hard decisions early about achievable requirements that balance affordability and capability, and speed to the force,” Thornberry said. “Starting programs well was the focus of a lot of the reforms that we made in last year’s NDAA, but getting the early steps right is critical to making improvements.”
Runaway sustainment costs — the cost of military equipment operations and support (O&S) — have become a critical challenge, particularly as the Pentagon stretches the life of older weapons systems, according to former Pentagon comptroller Robert Hale, who testified before the committee. Hale drew a link between the Pentagon's losing fight to maintain the size of its forces and money-draining sustainment costs, which have risen 20 percent since 2000.
While the Pentagon has improved its ability to hold down unanticipated development costs, it must use its recently established “affordability caps,” which govern development, operations and support, to police O&S costs across a program’s lifecycle, Hale said. He recommended the Pentagon invest in better models to project O&S costs, then factor them into decisions about nascent programs.