WASHINGTON — Experts testified on Capitol Hill Tuesday that t The Pentagon’s weapons buying system needs an overhaul if the US military is to maintain its waning technological edge, experts told senators on Tuesday.

The president last week signed a 2016 defense policy bill laden with acquisition reform measures, but lawmakers are not through yet want to make even more changes. The remarks before during the Senate Armed Services Committee are the latest, over a series of hearings in there that chamber and in the House Armed Services Committee in recent months, to explore further reforms. 

Witnesses testified that the system labors under 180,000 pages of regulations, struggles to keep talented workers and is being outpaced by the proliferation of commercial technology and by other nations. Once the leader in night vision technology, the US has since been eclipsed by France, and import controls have driven countries who want to buy from the US to competitors like China.    

SASC Chair Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., in the hearing lamented that despite several waves of defense reform legislation over the decades, the , and authorities to bypass the acquisition reform system, that system remains risk averse and less open to commercial solutions than it was 30 years ago. Technology gaps are emerging in the fields of robots, communications and data analytics, among others, "emboldening" enemies, McCain said.

SASC Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., noted that while the Pentagon’s work isn’t done, it is pursuing measures, such as Better Buying Power 3.0, and a Silicon Valley outpost, called the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, meant to help companies there navigate defense acquisition rules.  or DIUX — both aimed at closing these gaps. He acknowledged that fewer programs breach Nunn-McCurdy cost growth limits.

"We have begun to make an impact, but we cannot sit back on our laurels, we have to do more," Reed said.

Norman Augustine, the founding president of the Lockheed Martin, stressed the value of attracting and empowering talented managers, providing them with the space to take risks, but holding them accountable when they do not perform. Yet skilled young people prefer to work not in not the Defense Department, but Silicon Valley.

Augustine, who has worked in government and industry, said the barriers to moving back and forth between the two — meant to avert conflicts of interest — should be relaxed.

In 1999, Augustine helped found In-Q-Tel, a venture capital firm sponsored by the CIA with a mandate to support the US intelligence community by investing in advanced technology. Augustine suggested the Defense Department could embrace such a model, designed to permit that allows In-Q-Tel to work with Silicon Valley firms the way they work with each other, for greater flexibility and latitude in acquisitions. 

The Pentagon is clinging to a Cold War acquisitions model, characterized by an alignment of the Defense Department and the private sector. Today, the Defense Department is a significant, but not compelling, business partner for high-tech firms that see commercial development as more attractive, said Ben FitzGerald, the Center For A New American Security's Technology And National Security Program director.

FitzGerald lauded Space X, which that is ultimately supporting NASA through its pursuit of commercial space flight. The Pentagon, too, could find commercial partners with common interests, he said.  

If some of the most successful programs in recent years seem to be those that have worked around the acquisitions system, why not make the work-around the norm, FitzGerald asked.

"We are managing around the system," FitzGerald said. "I get incredibly frustrated … the answer is always change the system, and the thing we can't do is change the system."

The norm at the Pentagon has become long-term, sophisticated and expensive programs, but it’s not doing itself any favors when it fails to set limits, said retired US Air Force Lt. Col. Dan Ward, a consultant and author. Ward touts the use of small teams working to achieve speed, thrift and simplicity, as that are outstripping large teams that spare no expense.

The Pentagon should utilize use and reward acquisitions officials who embrace constraints, instead of dismissing speed and thrift or view long timelines as "strategic genius," as is too often the case, Ward said. The Pentagon itself should resist expansive programs and — in the terminology of "Star Wars" — "build droids, not dDeath sStars," he said.

As an example that constraints work, Ward said, the plan to build four for the Virginia-class, nuclear-powered fast-attack submarines in two years at a cost of $2 billion each is considered fast and cheap. , Ward said, was to build four in two years at a cost of $2 billion each — considered fast and cheap. The first, in 2008, arrived eight months ahead of schedule and $54 million under budget.
"There is an idea that you can get it faster, better or cheaper, pick two," Ward said. "If we only pick two it becomes a self-fulfilling prophescy."

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @reporterjoe

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.

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