WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry plans to unveil legislation Tuesday aimed at making the Pentagon's weapons acquisition system more flexible and less wasteful.
In broad terms, the bill would encourage only mature technology to go into procurement while promoting faster upgrades of key components. The legislation aims to provide long-awaited clarity on the intellectual property rights of the Pentagon's vendors, and the bill would further shift acquisition authorities away from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and toward the armed services.
The US defense establishment is all in for reforms of some kind or another. Former top Pentagon officials on Monday published an open letter that said 30 years after the passage of the Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1986, it is time to reexamine the law to both correct DoD inefficiencies and address the speed and complexity of new security threats.
"It is a department that isn't operating in a 21st Century speed level, it doesn't have a mindset that is attuned to the way organizations thrive today," said Kathleen Hicks, director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director for policy planning at the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy.
While the consensus is that the Pentagon is not "broken," its best practices, Hicks said, "are built on the GM or Ford model of how to operate a large organization, and that makes you ineffective and hugely inefficient."
At least two proposals in that bill are expected to rile the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
Milestone decision authority for joint programs would be delegated down to the armed services after fiscal 2019, expanding the removal of those authorities from the undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L). (The 2016 defense policy bill did this for service-specific programs.)
The next acknowledges that rising costs and lengthening schedules of major defense acquisition programs have increasingly lead to more expensive platforms fielded in fewer numbers. To nip this in the bud, the defense secretary would be required to set targets for the cost and fielding date for a program at Milestone A, the earliest phase of a formal program's development. HASC aides insisted that this echoes one of the AT&L Undersecretary Frank Kendall's own initiatives and was no reflection on him.
"This is in no way an indictment [of Kendall]," an HASC aide said. "Time is the element the chairman is focused on addressing, so to the extent there is an acquisition program with multiple layers of management in it, can we set a requirement, an incentive structure, an organization where parameters are established and management is devolved to the lowest possible level."
The services would be held accountable for missing cost and schedule targets by the AT&L undersecretary, according to the HASC aide. The legislation would incentivize investments in mature technologies over risky technologies and make clear, the aide said, "if the technology's not ready, you shouldn't be starting the acquisition program. You have a science and technology enterprise to explore things."
The defense industry is expected to hail the bill's establishment of intellectual property rights for certain Pentagon purchases, which is linked to a drastic redefinition of how weapons and platforms are purchased.
The bill would delineate between a platform, such as a tank, and the components it contains, such as its communications systems and other gear. The goal is that the components, under proposed rules, could be quickly and easily upgraded as technology develops, and made available to fighting troops.
All systems would be required to have open architectures, which would facilitate upgrades and allow for more competition for those upgrades. Further, the services would be allowed to use flexible funding to, in theory, buy and field prototype components faster and more efficiently.
The bill would require all components conform to open interfaces in order to plug into the overall system, according to an outline. Privately funded components "inside the black box" remain the intellectual property of the developer. Jointly funded capability is subject to negotiation between the government and the developer.
"Anecdotally, we're getting a major issue the industrial base is having with the Defense Department is the open question of intellectual property rights," the HASC aide said.
Thornberry's legislation follows hearings on Pentagon reform in both the House and Senate armed services committees and previous measures in the 2016 defense policy bill. The House version of the 2017 policy bill is expected to address Goldwater-Nichols reforms, beyond acquisitions.
In late April, Thornberry plans to outline the policy bill, mark it up and preside over the full committee's markup on the bill. The House version of the bill is expected to go to the House floor in mid-May.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., is expected to advance his own slate of proposals, though he has not yet detailed what they will be. McCain's committee has heard a broad range of ideas from experts, some that would revamp the military's senior-most chain-of-command as established by Goldwater-Nichols.
Though 35 experts have testified on Capitol Hill about the need for broad DoD reform, there was no consensus what form it should take, according to Mark Cancian, a former Office of Management and Budget official now with CSIS.
"What we found was there was a lot of consensus about problems but a lot of disagreement about the solution to those problems," Cancian said. "That's a different situation than we were in in the 1980s."
The two versions of the NDAA would go through a monthslong process of being crafted and then reconciled with one another.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter said earlier this month he too wants to offer reform proposals piecemeal in the coming weeks, at least some aimed at improving its use of cyber capabilities and a giving the services more say in the acquisition system — an area in common with lawmakers.
Congress required the services submit their own proposals, and the Navy and Marine Corps were content. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, however, has proposed he be given more legal authorities to oversee formal acquisition requirements and removing some of the regulatory hurdles to develop and field new programs.
The signatories of the open letter calling for broad Goldwater-Nichols reforms — who include former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy, a likely candidate for defense secretary under a democratic administration — announced plans to collaborate on possible solutions over the next nine months. That suggests their recommendations would not be part of 2017 defense policy legislation but target future years.
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.