WASHINGTON — A trio of former defense officials on Tuesday pushed lawmakers to keep passing reforms to make the Pentagon more agile and efficient, even as it digests Congress' last batch.
Lawmakers must help the Department of Defense find new ways to bypass its sluggish acquisition system, they said. Proposals also targeted DoD's civilian workforce, headquarters staff cuts, and a new round of the Base Realignment and Closure process as a means of finding budgetary savings.
"I personally believe you've got to go full bore, because if you give the bureaucracy time to figure out what you've asked for, they'll also figure out a way to get around what you've asked for," Dov Zakheim, former DoD comptroller, said of acquisitions reforms.
The testimony before the House Armed Services Committee came as Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, is considering new defense reform proposals for this year's nascent defense policy bill. After the hearing, he told reporters he welcomed witness suggestions to retool the marquee provision of last years's National Defense Authorization Act: the split of undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics into two jobs.
Thornberry also said he is taking seriously a civilian workforce overhaul proposed by Michèle Flournoy, the former undersecretary of defense for policy, as a way to squeeze efficiencies and agility from DoD's bureaucracy. He indicated he was open to the defense secretary getting some flexibility to choose changes under a broader congressional mandate.
"Over time what happens is Congress puts in an assistant secretary of this, different organizations, and they just build up on each other," Thornberry told reporters. "That's part of the way OSD gets so big. Maybe it's time to kind of scrape all that off and start over."
Flournoy, now CEO of the Center for a New American Security, argued for streamlining the DoD workforce while reinvigorating it. The defense secretary, she said, should lay out the right mix of military, civilian and contractor employees for OSD, and how he will shape, train and develop that workforce. From there, the defense secretary could tame other parts of DoD.
The Pentagon has yet to implement the last of NDAA's ordered split for the chief weapons buyer's job into two jobs: an undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, and an undersecretary for research and engineering — essentially a chief innovation officer.
John Hamre, former deputy secretary of defense and now CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argued Tuesday there already needs to be some major tweaks. Lawmakers undercut the impact of elevating the innovation job by creating a second undersecretary for acquisition, who actually controls spending, he said.
"The guy who controls the money actually has got the most power," Hamre said. "Your desire to elevate the innovation ecosystem in the department to make us more dynamic was unfortunately undermined when you created the second undersecretary of defense."
To change AT&L into an innovation organization, Hamre suggested offloading procurement policymaking and other "mechanical functions of acquisition" to an assistant secretary. The undersecretary, a more senior job, would be responsible for the big decisions — which would in turn attract a talented person to fill the job, he said.
Thornberry also welcomed ideas about helping the Pentagon make better use of innovative commercial technology, a theme of his past reform efforts. He voiced skepticism for the Pentagon's Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, saying the idea of DoD outposts in innovation corridors is a good one, but it has struggled to pay off.
"It identifies a new technology, and then what happens to it? It's either too hard to do business with the government or there's not the funds to incorporate these new technologies into a program of record," Thornberry said. "But just because it came in in the last administration, you don't do away with it. The idea is right."
Flournoy told lawmakers the intent behind the new DoD innovation chief's job was to "take that soda straw" for commercial and experimental systems "and make it into a superhighway." To support the organizational change, she called for training, incentives and career paths to support it.
Zakheim, too, urged the door be opened to Silicon Valley and other commercial innovators to shore up the Pentagon's technological edge.
"That's the key: How wide can that door be opened?" said Zakheim, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Unless there's legislation to force it open, it ain't going to open — because the culture in the department is anti-profit, anti-commercialization."
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.