WASHINGTON — In his final speech, the Pentagon's outgoing acquisition chief slammed Congress for recent efforts to improve the weapons buying process, saying that changes to policy would likely only create more bureaucracy.
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have only "imperfect tools" to improve defense acquisition, said Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, during a Tuesday speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Congress can overhaul organizational structures and set very firm regulations on how the Defense Department operates, but ultimately those actions can be counterproductive.
"To be honest, I believe that, as often as not, what they do doesn't help. In some cases it has the opposite effect," he said. "What it does do, almost inevitably is create more bureaucracy. Because everything it gets put in statute, we have to implement to demonstrate compliance, and that adds and adds and adds to the body of regulation that is a burden to our acquisition system."
In a wide ranging speech that drew from his new 228-page book, "Getting Defense Acquisition Right," Kendall shared anecdotes about his career in the Pentagon and made the case that incremental changes would serve the procurement process better than sweeping change.
"Acquisition improvement is going to have to come from within. It is not going to be engineered by Hill staffers writing laws for us. It's going to be done by people in the trenches, everyday, dealing with industry, trying to get the incentives right, trying to get the performance right, trying to set up business deals and enforce them, set reasonable requirements in our contracts [and] do all the hundreds of things that are necessary to get good results," he said.
The department’s procurement wing is on the right track, and "we should be reinforcing" good practices, he said. For instance, data shows that cost overruns have been coming down "significantly" over the last couple of years, in part because program managers feel empowered to do the "right thing" for the program instead of simply adhering to regulations.
That flexibility is important in many areas of contracting, Kendall said, pointing to his fight with Congress over fixed price contracts. Although many lawmakers favor fixed-price contracts that shift risk to industry, data gathered over the past few years shows that fixed-price and cost-plus contracts seem to generate the same amount of cost growth.
"The idea that fixed price is the solution to our problems. It was tried. It was tried and it failed. One of my frustrations having been in this business for so long is that we don’t seem to learn from the past," he said. "I spent a few years in the Pentagon in the late '80s, early '90s cleaning up the messes that fixed price development caused across the department."
Kendall offered a couple suggestions on how Congress could help the acquisition process. For one, it could make it easier for the department to recruit and retain skilled personnel and compensate them fairly.
The Pentagon also needs more money for research and development. Over the past few budgets, the department has invested in a number of demonstration programs that prove out innovative and cutting edge technologies, but it doesn’t have the budget to turn them into procurement programs.
"We have, I’m afraid, conveyed the impression, unintentionally, that lack of innovation is our problem, and that more innovation is the solution to our problems. I don’t believe that. We actually have quite a bit of innovation. What we haven’t had is the money to take that innovation and translate it into products," he said.
There are signals that the Trump administration could funnel more money into the Defense Department, something that Kendall said "wouldn’t be a bad thing." However, some of that money needs to flow into modernization programs.
Although much of Kendall’s comments focused on how congressional meddling negatively impacts defense acquisition, he offered some sharp criticisms of Pentagon policy as well.
So far, the department’s Third Offset effort has funded a series of demonstrations, with artificial intelligence and autonomy being seen as two of the key enabling technologies. However, officials do not have a clear vision of the capabilities needed or how they can be used to revolutionize warfare.
"We’re doing a lot of experimentation," Kendall said. "But we do not yet have the clear design concept … for a new suite of capabilities that will be dramatically better on the battlefield."
Requirements development could also be improved by doing more analysis to ensure that what is being asked for will actually make a difference to the warfighter, he said.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.