WASHINGTON — The Biden administration has tapped the Air Force’s former acquisition chief to be the next top weapons buyer for the Pentagon.
William LaPlante, the president and chief executive of Draper Laboratory, will be nominated to be the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, the White House announced Tuesday.
LaPlante served as assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition for three years, until he left in November 2015 to join the non-profit MITRE Corp. He served as senior vice president for the organization’s national security sector, and focused on developing advanced command and control concepts, cyber systems, and ways to keep supply chains resilient, the White House said in its announcement.
During his time at the Air Force, he saw the B-21 Raider, at the time known as the Long Range Strike Bomber, through a difficult acquisition process. He had originally planned to leave the Air Force earlier in 2015, but stayed on through the award of the bomber contract to Northrop Grumman that October.
LaPlante also shepherded the Air Force’s acquisition of the KC-46 Pegasus tanker during his tenure there.
Continuing the United States’ access to space was a key area of concern for LaPlante. His departure came in the wake of a congressional effort to reduce the U.S.’s reliance on Russian-made engines to put satellites into orbit.
In a farewell roundtable with reporters at the Pentagon in November 2015, LaPlante said he doubted the U.S. could simultaneously move to an American-made engine, ensure competition and keep access to space.
“I think the space launch situation is serious for the country,” LaPlante said at the time. “You can get competition, you can get two independent ways to get into space or you can get off the Russian engines — I don’t see how you do all three in the next four years.”
Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, head of the National Defense Industrial Association, praised the selection of LaPlante in a statement to Defense News. LaPlante joined NDIA’s board of directors in October 2020.
“Bill would be an outstanding [acquisition and sustainment] leader,” Carlisle, a retired Air Force general and former head of Air Combat Command, said. “He has a great background and understanding of the industry, which also has a high and deep respect for him.”
The White House called LaPlante “a seasoned national security leader with nearly four decades of experience in acquisition, technology, sustainment and the defense industrial base.”
He “has spent much of those decades delivering material as well as conceptual innovations to enhance national security capabilities and efficiency,” the White House said.
In addition to his work on major Air Force acquisition programs, the White House said LaPlante found nearly $6 billion in savings in other programs.
The selection of LaPlante brings to an end months of uncertainty over the direction of the military’s acquisition leadership. Michael Brown, first nominated for the job in April, withdrew his nomination in July amid an inspector general investigation into his hiring practices as head of the Defense Innovation Unit and allegations of tailoring job descriptions to certain candidates to ensure they got the jobs.
But it could still be a few months until LaPlante is on the job. The Senate is mired in battles over the budget and a stalled National Defense Authorization Act and will lose additional weeks due to the holiday season.
Byron Callan, a policy research expert specializing in the defense and aerospace industries at Capital Alpha Partners, said in an email LaPlante will likely be confirmed by the Senate — but probably not until January or February at best.
Callan said improving the Pentagon’s culture and practices for software acquisition will be one of LaPlante’s most significant challenges.
Another top priority, Callan said, will be considering how to better use the tools Congress gave the department to speed up program development and procurement and encourage new companies to pursue programs.
Jerry McGinn, executive director of the Center for Government Contracting at George Mason University’s School of Business and a former Pentagon official, said LaPlante should focus on ensuring steps taken during the Trump administration to improve the acquisition process are further institutionalized.
“It’s sort of taking things to the next level,” McGinn said. “There’s not a lot of partisan disagreement on the things that were done [in the] last administration. So I see a lot more continuity, in continuing to move these efforts forward.”
LaPlante also will need to address the department’s sustainment policies and practices, Callan said, as well as tackle the defense supply chain, industry consolidation and the status of progress payment and profit policies.
McGinn said LaPlante will have to contend with potential consolidation within the defense industry, particularly Lockheed Martin’s still-unapproved acquisition of Aerojet Rocketdyne.
Callan said LaPlante’s nomination also underscores the sluggish pace of getting officials confirmed and in place at the Defense Department. He said the Senate has only confirmed 22 senior defense officials since the start of the Biden administration, and another 22 — now including LaPlante — have been nominated and are either waiting for a hearing or a Senate vote. Another four defense officials are still serving in the roles for which they were confirmed during the Trump administration.
And 13 more positions — most notably, undersecretary of the Navy — have not had anyone nominated to fill them.
It’s hard to tell how the lagging nominations and confirmations is affecting the Pentagon, Callan said, adding that the department’s work on the fiscal 2023 budget is just about done. But he noted that Biden nominees will play a larger role in the following budget for fiscal 2024.
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.