The Biden administration’s flat top-line defense budget proposal of $715 billion riled up the annual debate on how much is enough to defend the country these days. But how much is not the important question. Rather, it is how those dollars are spent that matters most, a point recently emphasized by Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., the House Armed Services Committee chairman.
Smith’s point puts a spotlight squarely on how the Pentagon purchases new weapons and whether decades of defense acquisitions reform truly provides the best national security possible. Or has that reform just squeezed competition out of the defense industry in the name of “fairness” and to the detriment of being able to quickly field what war fighters need to counter rising threats?
Dangerously, the latter rings true. Instead of “fairness” meaning an equal opportunity to compete, it has been translated as equal opportunity to contest every lost contract bid without accountability for adverse impact to national security, let alone for billions of tax dollars and years wasted in deliberation. There are no penalties for crushing progress nor metrics to reveal how a fulfilled contract truly bolstered national security on the way to a bolstered bottom line.
Furthermore, the defense acquisitions system is fraught with red tape, which dissuades new entrants that might otherwise introduce competition and favorably disrupt the status quo with more agile business practices to field relevant capabilities quicker. Instead, over a half century of supposed acquisition reform has left us with monopolist competition between a few major defense contractors that profit primarily from sustaining platforms that are too often irrelevant in answering modern threats.
The primary point of the defense acquisition process and its reform is not to have fair and open competition first and foremost. Rather, it is about getting the strongest national security possible. It is about how to best protect the nation responsibly and effectively. To do so by leveraging healthy economic markets that drive fair and open competition is certainly beneficial and should be the expectation along the way. And there should be rules and laws to deter unsavory and unfair acquisitions practices; but such should not be the underlying factor driving acquisition reform.
Pentagon leadership must be part of the solution. Former Air Force acquisitions chief Dr. Will Roper is one of a handful of vocal champions articulating what needs to be done. Roper distilled it down to the need to “flip the script” to incentivize private sector innovation and dual-use capabilities to answer modern military needs quickly while abandoning “forever” platforms — those more costly to sustain with each passing year and which often wield obsolete or irrelevant capabilities once fielded, often years or even decades after the decision to acquire them was made.
Congress must also prioritize how we spend defense dollars over how much. While every aspect of the defense acquisitions process has been lamented, studied, overhauled and altered over the last 50-60 years, the one relatively unchanging constant in the equation is Congress’ archaic institutional processes and traditions.
Congress’ committees are stovepiped, incentivized to consolidate and hold power, and loathe to collaboration across jurisdictional focus. Yet, the economic and security challenges we face are complex and interwoven on a global scale. Oversight and security of manufacturing supply chains cross the jurisdiction of several congressional committees, as do implications of dealing with partners and allies in general, economically or otherwise.
Vulnerabilities to the security and availability of microelectronics is just one such recent instance brought to light, not to mention the availability of prescription drug ingredients and the manufacture and supply of personal protective equipment, both highlighted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, there is no mechanism to harmonize related policy across the institution of Congress to better how we spend.
To that end, while the unrelenting challenge of defense acquisition reform is notorious, it is also well known in defense policy circles and therefore offers an opportunity to act as a vehicle to open the door to broader change and coordination required on how to best spend defense dollars.
Incentives can and must be refocused from within Congress to unleash the best of our free enterprise system. New players must be enticed by lowering barriers to entry into the defense-industrial base and provided real opportunities to compete fairly with the major defense contractors. Innovation in design and production as well as more agile business practices must be rewarded to field capabilities that answer modern military needs quicker.
Our short history as a nation has demonstrated that ingenuity, inventiveness, imagination and the free flow of ideas — especially when translated to the advancement of impactful science and technology on the economy, national security and overall quality of life — is core to our unprecedented success as a country. This time is no different, especially when science and technology is complimented by sound policy and an engaged private sector.
Ultimately, the primary point of the defense acquisition process and its reform is not fair and open competition first and foremost. China surely is not thinking that way. Rather, it is about getting to the strongest national security possible. It is about how to best protect the nation responsibly and effectively — not necessarily how much — as we strive to maintain our competitive advantage.
Tim Welter, who holds a doctorate in political science, is a senior research fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. He previously served in the U.S. Air Force and worked on Capitol Hill and in the Pentagon. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official stance of the U.S. Defense Department or the Potomac Institute.