In defense acquisition, “the times, they are a-changin’.” For decades, Congress and the Pentagon developed an acquisition bureaucracy geared toward eliminating risk at the expense of everything else. Regulations and check-the-box procedures accumulated like barnacles on a ship, suffocating innovation and failing to develop weapons on time or at acceptable cost. Except for a few outliers, the department’s existing major weapons programs have largely stabilized their cost and delivery schedule.
Now, lawmakers and Pentagon officials are focused on transitioning the acquisition system from a peacetime organization centered around risk aversion to a system that operates at “the speed of relevance,” as former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis put it.
From fiscal 2016-2019, Congress drove this change by passing more than 300 acquisition reform provisions, including a fundamental reorganization of the Pentagon’s acquisition bureaucracy, a bevy of new flexible funding authorities, and greater consideration for commercial best practices across software development and basic business operations.
Unfortunately, the Department of Defense has yet to effectively wield all the new tools Congress gave it.
This week, House Armed Services Committee Ranking member Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, has fired the first legislative shot to address this failure. On the surface, the bill looks like a list of punishments handed out to the Pentagon for sluggishness in implementing the reforms of the past four years. However, the Pentagon should view Rep. Thornberry’s Continuing Acquisition Reform legislation as an olive branch.
The bill aims to build an acquisition system built on mutual trust, which will develop better weapons at lower cost and in time to make a difference for U.S. war fighters. Rep. Thornberry is telling the Pentagon: “Help me help you! Help me help you!”
Many of the structural flaws in the acquisition system trace back to mistrust between Congress and the Pentagon. The department fails to provide Congress with sufficient information, and Congress responds with micromanagement and one-size-fits-all regulations, which in turn drives cost increases and delays that prompt Congress to engage in even more micromanagement. It’s a vicious cycle, and Thornberry’s bill is an attempt to break that cycle.
Rather than saddling the acquisition system with new regulations, reporting requirements and complexity, Thornberry’s bill simply pushes the Pentagon to use the tools it already possesses. It asks the Department of Defense to follow through on its end of the bargain. In exchange for congressional support of increased acquisition flexibility and commercial best practices across Pentagon processes, lawmakers need more frequent communication for the department, with more relevant and honest information.
In response to the snail’s pace of implementation by the bureaucracy, Rep. Thornberry’s bill provides Pentagon leadership with a significant array of sticks to incentivize change. Until the Pentagon provides more information to Congress, the legislation restricts all funding for the various offices responsible for implementing five flagship reforms: rapid acquisition pathways (Section 804 authority), modular open systems architecture usage, intellectual property policies, defense business systems and back-office support efficiencies.
The Pentagon has moved slowly, in part because the bureaucracy remains fundamentally risk-averse; it is difficult to change a culture that has been reinforced for so many years. For instance, Army acquisition executive Bruce Jette quipped that his intellectual property policy felt like it had been “reviewed 10,000 times.” The department’s inability to quickly modernize its business IT systems remains at the heart of its audit woes, and its proclaimed internal “savings” remain magical numbers without documentation or validation, despite congressional interest in trimming back-office personnel.
Most significantly, the Pentagon has yet to finish writing policy guidance regarding the rapid acquisition pathway for new weapons development, which effectively sidestepping the onerous regulations of the traditional acquisition system. Congress created this new pathway in the FY16 defense policy bill (Section 804), but the Department of Defense only began to work on the new guidance in late 2018, with actual writing starting in February 2019.
Lack of policy guidance creates uncertainty in the acquisition workforce, which so far has been reluctant to use this tool. The Air Force wields Section 804 most aggressively, accounting for 24 of the 35 programs under the authority. Yet, its lack of communication to Congress about its Section 804 weapons programs threatens to engender a backlash from lawmakers that will neutralize the tool’s future utility. Although not explicitly addressed in the Continuing Acquisition Reform bill, the Pentagon acquisition teams should worry that a similar backlash could plague expanded usage of the other transaction authority, a highly flexible contracting tool, if insufficient reporting continues.
The Continuing Acquisition Reform bill provides a credible signal from Congress that senior defense leadership should move aggressively in using existing authority to change how the department does business. It’s a small step toward an acquisition system built on mutual understanding and trust that can actually support the need to move fast and fail often.