Hagel’s Right-Hand Man on Acquisition Reform

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks with two airmen at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, on July 15, 2014.

U.S Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Erin O'Shea

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Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, speaks with two airmen at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, on July 15, 2014.

Frank Kendall’s close relationship with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has helped elevate his plans for acquisition reform. By Marcus Weisgerber

Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was supposed to headline the largest Air Force convention of the year, but a more pressing matter came up.

Hagel needed to accompany President Barack Obama to Tampa, Florida, for a briefing at U.S. Central Command about the now-underway airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria. Hagel needed a trusted confidant to fill in for him at the Air Force Association conference in Maryland, so he turned to Frank Kendall, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition.

Hagel’s choice in Kendall to deliver the remarks he had already penned is the latest in a series of actions that demonstrates the close relationship two have developed over the past year, defense officials close to both men say.

Moreover, the relationship has helped elevate Kendall’s acquisition reform – or as he prefers to say, “acquisition improvement” – initiatives, the latest of which was unveiled last week.

Kendall, unlike many in the Pentagon’s top civilian ranks who have departed or intend to leave soon, has committed to staying throughout the remainder of Obama’s final term in the White House, defense sources say. This, one defense official said, is a testament to the strong relationship he has developed with Hagel and his commitment to seeing these acquisition reform efforts through.

(Related: Better Buying Power 4 Years On: Is It Making a Difference?)

For nearly a year, Kendall has been outspoken on the subject of the Pentagon’s eroding technological edge. He has, at times, made controversial comments, such as how China’s increased military spending and investment in stealth fighter jets, hypersonic weapons and anti-ship missiles could threaten long-standing U.S. military superiority.

“Technological superiority is not assured and we cannot be complacent about our posture,” Kendall told the House Armed Services Committee in January.

Inside the Pentagon, Hagel has privately supported Kendall’s assessment. That became clear in a speech Hagel gave at a defense industry conference in Rhode Island earlier this month, which included much of the language Kendall has used over the past year.

“[W]hile we face a multitude of threats and sources of instability in the world, I am greatly concerned that our military’s technological superiority is being challenged in ways we’ve never experienced before,” Hagel said on Sept. 3.

The closeness between the two bodes well for Kendall’s two acquisition reform projects, Better Buying Power and a separate effort he is working on with Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, to rewrite bureaucratic acquisition policies that have been layered on over decades.

Having this type of senior-level buy in on these acquisition projects is essential to instituting change, said David Berteau, senior vice president and director of National Security Program on Industry and Resources at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank in Washington.

Kendall convenes meetings every few weeks where he gets status updates on the Better Buying Power initiatives, according to a Pentagon spokeswoman.

“That’s the level of senior management attention it takes to get implementation to be paid attention to,” Berteau said.

Kendall’s latest update of Better Buying Power, an acquisition reform initiative designed to get DOD more bang for its buck, heavily focuses on technology.

The first version, written by then-Pentagon acquisition chief Ashton Carter, focused heavily on controlling the cost of procurement projects. The second version — written by Kendall — centered on improvements within the acquisition workforce ranks.

“This [version] brings us back to our products, to the capabilities that we’re giving the warfighters,” Kendall said during a Sept. 19 speech at CSIS where he unveiled his draft of Better Buying Power 3.0. “It is focused on those dominant capabilities and the important of technical excellence on innovation to acquiring them.”

The latest update does not replace earlier versions, but adds to them. The new version calls for increased use of prototyping and experimentation, an initiative also touted by Hagel during his speech in Rhode Island earlier this month.

But in order to get industry’s attention, DOD needs to back up these projects with funding.

“At a certain point, the rhetoric has to be backed by money because that’s what’s going to get people’s attention,” said Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.

Better Buying Power has made an impact, experts say, but exactly how much is not clear.

“I think there’s been a lot of penetration of things that we just haven’t been able to see the visible results of because they’re not assembled in a way that we can tie them back to the Better Buying Power initiatives,” Berteau said.

What could make major changes to the way DOD conducts acquisition are the legislative proposals being worked on by Kendall and Thornberry.

“Even if all you did was create common thresholds and common report cycles, you’d save so much time and money in terms of just compliance alone without any reduction in the actual amount of valuable oversight,” Berteau said.

This effort is the largest of its kind in nearly 30 years when President Ronald Reagan established the Packard Commission, which made major DOD management recommendations, including establishing the undersecretary for acquisition.

“We’re at a historic opportunity here in terms of the ability to rationalize government acquisition in general, and defense acquisition in particular, because we’re got alignment between congressional interest, executive branch interest and industry’s interest,” said Berteau, who was the executive secretary of the Packard Commission.

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