WASHINGTON — In seeking to wipe out the office of the Pentagon's chief weapons buyer and divide its duties between two positions, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain is going back to the future.
Analysts suggest McCain's changes to the acquisitions structure, revealed Thursday as part of his committee's National Defense Authorization Act markup, would send the Pentagon back to an older structure, to a time when the services' handling of basic acquisition programs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) was limited to looking at future innovations.
The language blows up undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L) — currently held by Frank Kendall — and hands its duties to a new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, or USD(R&E), and the renamed undersecretary of management and support, or USD(M&S).
SASC committee aides, in a Capitol Hill background briefing Friday, stressed that the move was not about Frank Kendall personally and not a rollback to 1985, before the safeguards emplaced by Goldwater-Nichols and the Packard Commission recommendations. They touted the move not as a regression but a rebalancing.
A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the language by deadline, as they had not yet seen the final statute.
Aides declined to say the degree to which the committee consulted Kendall prior to drafting the bill, or whether Kendall supported it, with one stressing "in comparison to people who previously did the job, I think [Kendall]'s very good. … It's not about the job he's doing but the job he had, the nature of AT&L."
Rather the idea was to elevate and unburden DoD's innovation mission from the mundane work of management and support so that it could concentrate on bringing leap-ahead technologies into DoD.
The USD R&E position, a chief innovation officer of sorts, would be focused on oversight, acquisition and industrial base policy defensewide, overseeing the major weapons and national security systems the services are developing, recommending to the defense secretary what technology DoD should develop to meet future needs. (Lesser programs and weapons systems would be overseen by an assistant secretary for operations and management.)
Andrew Hunter, a former official at AT&L who is at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the summary language of the bill reads like a throwback to the pre-Goldwater Nichols structure — one, he said, that led to the creation of the Packard Commission.
The decision to create the AT&L undersecretary slot was aimed at avoiding chaos in the system, Hunter said, and diffusing those responsibilities across various offices could backfire.
If the Packard Commission was set up to rid DoD of corruption and inflated contracts, and it established the USD(AT&L), is there reason to fear its disestablishment heralds a return to old problems? Committee aides said no, arguing that the establishment of the watchdog offices of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) and Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), did not exist before 1985.
"They're going to continue on in the role and the function they have, which is to provide the compliance and leadership areas," a second committee aide said. "There is a policing action because this is what CAPE says, and the same thing with DOT&E. This is no kidding, you meet this and no kidding, it's effective. Those kind of policemen are out there."
And Arnold Punaro, a former Marine Corps major general and Senate Armed Services Committee staff director who worked on the Packard Commission, argues that the language is in line with the initial Packard legislation, which was "last focused" on technology.
"My own view is, I don't think we're rolling the clock back at all," Punaro said. "We're fixing some of the barnacles and crustaceans that have grown on both Goldwater and Packard in the last 30 years."
However, Steve Grundman of the Atlantic Council raised concerns that trying to re-create a system designed for the problems of the 1970s and 1980s doesn't necessarily make sense.
"The idea that you're trying to promote innovation by re-creating Bill Perry's office from 1977, that sounds a little disingenuous to me," Grundman said. "It's either disingenuous, trying to put a cover on an initiative that is more primarily aimed at simply cutting OSD out of acquisition, or it's misguided."
Grundman also raised concerns about pushing oversight of acquisitions programs at the OSD level to the comptroller's office, particularly through the use of CAPE.
"CAPE is the center of the comptroller's program and budget review, so, at least in that regard, they're affirming my view that this change would relegate the SECDEF's purview over acquisition management to the program/budget review, which is run by the comptroller's office," he said. "DOT&E is an important office, but quite beside the point of how and when important tradeoffs between and among requirements, budgets and system performance get made."
All three analysts agree change is necessary in the system. Punaro points out that just last week, Carter decided to remove his Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUX) from the normal acquisition chain as proof the system is broken.
"Secretary Carter doesn't have confidence in his own AT&L system to deliver innovation, so now it's a direct report," Punaro said. "In a way SASC is taking Carter at his word" that innovation has to be prioritized and can't work in the existing system.
However, that pushing innovation to the OSD level could have unforeseen consequences, Grundman warns.
"Relegating innovation to OSD, I think, would be a terrible thing," he said. "The services would say innovation isn't mine, that's OSD, and if they come up with something good we'll flow it down, we'll wait for that."
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Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.
Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.