WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry unveiled draft legislation on Tuesday aimed at speeding weapons development and streamlining the Pentagon acquisitions bureaucracy.
Thornberry, R-Texas, voiced two fears that fueled the bill, that the Pentagon's buying system is so complex it is driving US firms out of the defense sector and that the US may one day be overtaken by a more technologically advanced adversary.
"Getting technology into the hands of the warfighter faster is an imperative to me," Thornberry said in a discussion of the bill at the Brookings Institution. "The other thing that haunts me in some ways, if you look at history, there have been nations that have just missed a major change in warfare and have gone into a decline as a result."
A key part of the bill would create a divide between a platform — like an aircraft, ship or ground vehicle — and its components, envisioned as modular and, separate from the platform itself, rapidly upgradeable.
The bill would require all components conform to open interfaces in order to plug into the overall system. Privately funded components would remain the intellectual property of the developer, while the government would retain rights to components it funds. Jointly funded capability is subject to negotiation between the government and the developer.
"I've heard it firsthand, more and more companies are thinking about getting out of the defense business," Thornberry said. "They're expected to put their resources into things, and they lose the intellectual property they paid for 'Why do I want to do this?'"
To encourage prototyping and experimentation as a regular part of the acquisition process, the services would be allowed to use flexible funding. The services would have as much as $25 million to spend per project.
"If every experiment is a success, you're not pushing very hard," he said. "But what a better situation, to try something out at the component level and have it fail early rather than spend millions and millions of dollars and end up with a whole system that ends of being a failure."
This fund, Thornberry said, would prove a draw for small and mid-sized specialty companies who might not otherwise be able to compete against large companies on major programs.
Expanding on the provision of acquisition authorities to the armed services, a centerpiece of the HASC's reform effort last year, the services would be expected to build their own programs. However, the defense secretary is to hold them accountable for missing cost or schedule targets, and "replace who he needs to replace," Thornberry said.
Under the bill, the defense secretary would be responsible for "corporate governance," with the undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L) placing cost and schedule targets earlier in the process than before, at Milestone A, the earliest phase of a formal program's development.
The Acquisition Agility Act is being aired for feedback before Thornberry hopes to fold most it into the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, due in late April.
"There will definitely be resistance," Thornberry said. "The services are not going to like some of what I suggest, AT&L is not going to like some of what I suggest, industry is probably not going to like some of what I suggest. If there isn't some opposition, you're probably not changing very much."
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.