WASHINGTON — Rep. Mac Thornberry, echoing comments made over the past several months by a host of top Pentagon officials, argued Monday morning that the long-held American technological superiority over its adversaries is quickly eroding.
The answer to how to reverse this eroding advantage, the head of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) said, is to reform how the Pentagon buys the things it needs, while also reaching out to the commercial tech industry for innovative ideas.
Much of what Thornberry, R-Texas, told an audience during his speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) sounded familiar to those who have heard Defense Secretary Ash Carter speak on the Hill, or have listened to Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work or chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall over the past year.
The difference is that Thornberry says he's using his position to drive change in how the Pentagon buys its next generation of weapons. Kicking off a multi-year reform program, Thornberry said that it's critical that the US government "align our procurement system with market forces" in order to take advantage of fast-moving trends in technology more cheaply than the Defense Department does, "and be the fastest integrator of commercial technology" into defense systems across the government.
But Thornberry and his HASC colleagues want to kick off this long-term project with reforms at the bureaucratic level.
"We would require every program start out with an acquisition strategy," he said, adding that "it has to be in writing, and it has to be done up front then updated as needed. This strategy would consolidate at least six other requirements and must include the most appropriate type of contract for that acquisition."
The proposal would give individual program managers more of a say over what kinds of contracts are written, and they also "must consider whether multi-year is appropriate; it must consider risk management strategies, just like our combatant commanders have to have risk management strategies in their war plans. And it must consider incentives — such as shared savings on service contracts."
The language Thornberry hopes to insert in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act would also make permanent an acquisition workforce training fund that expires in 2018; slash the amount of redundant reports that program managers must submit on their programs; and get rid of procurement rules that give preference to fixed-price contracts.
Overall, the congressman is looking to create "a more streamlined chain of command and more accountability" among both program managers, the Pentagon and industry.
Acknowledging that members of Congress have for years launched failed bids to reform Pentagon procurement, Thornberry said he sees some light at the end of the tunnel.
"There is a tremendous amount of common perspective" between his committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee, chaired by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and DoD, he said, a situation that "is fairly rare."
"I think the people who work in the system are hungry for that. People want to do things, they don't just want to fill out reports."