Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is poised to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, speaks to reporters off the Senate floor, on December 4, 2014

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is poised to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in January, speaks to reporters off the Senate floor, on December 4, 2014 J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Want Bipartisan Success in Congress? Pass Defense Acquisition Reform

There are few things in Congress with more bipartisan support than fixing how the Pentagon buys everything – so get moving. By Andrew Hunter

On a gorgeous spring day in May 2009, President Obama sat down in the White House Rose Garden with the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees to sign the Weapon System Acquisition Reform Act of 2009. The bill had passed both houses of Congress without a single dissenting vote and with strong administration support. The president was embracing a signature issue of his opponent in the 2008 campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who sponsored the bill with Sen. Carl Levin, R-Mich., so the moment seemed to perfectly capture the potential for bipartisan cooperation.

Six years later, the case for making defense acquisition a top candidate for bipartisan congressional action in 2015 is compelling. Defense acquisition is a massive undertaking involving the expenditure of roughly $150 billion annually for research and development, and procurement of technology, and over $300 billion in total contracts. Even a small improvement in performance can make a difference of billions in the cost of equipping the military.

Most critically, the right leadership is currently in place. Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Frank Kendall has stated his intent to propose legislative changes to streamline and improve defense acquisition. McCain is widely expected to take over as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in the new Congress, and he and Levin recently issued a compendium of recommendations for improving acquisition solicited from a range of leading experts. On the other side of the Capitol, the House Armed Services Committee already has examined improvements to defense acquisition through hearings and other events for more than a year under the leadership of Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Tex., the designated next chairman, and Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash. Most recently, the National Defense Industrial Association, an advocacy group, has released a comprehensive set of recommendations. In short, a strong foundation has been laid for moving significant legislation.

(RelatedObama’s New Look Pentagon Trio of Carter, Work, Kendall Excites Defense Industry)

Despite widespread pessimism on the prospects for improving defense acquisition, the opportunity to make progress is real. The latest Defense Department annual report on the Performance of the Defense Acquisition System shows that less cost growth has occurred on major acquisition programs recently than in the past. Much of the credit goes to the department’s internal improvement approach, the “Better Buying Power” initiative, but the 2009 changes in law are likely partly responsible. They led to improved decision-making early in the acquisition process, when programmatic success or failure is largely determined, by being more realistic in projecting costs and evaluating technologies. They also reinforced the requirement for competition among contractors and the imperative of avoiding gold-plated requirements of the weapons and systems they produce. 

Despite widespread pessimism on the prospects for improving defense acquisition, the opportunity to make progress is real.

There are several promising areas for the next stage of congressional action. A first priority for Congress should be sustaining and enhancing the quality of the acquisition workforce, both in government and in industry. There is a profound demographic shift underway in the workforce as the baby boom generation retires. Congress should continue supporting the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, which provides money for the next generation of acquisition professionals to get the skills to do the job right, avoid the unforced error committed in the 1990s of radically downsizing the acquisition workforce, and provide the incentive for industry to make similar investments in its workforce.

A close second priority is ensuring that the incentives presented by the defense acquisition system actually encourage the right behaviors. Congress should review and amend statutes as needed to give program managers more reason to use mature technologies and to use appropriate contract types that control the government’s expenses. A handful of current statutes actually punish program managers for using mature technologies by requiring increased oversight and red tape. These laws should be amended and changed to encourage contract incentives based on objective performance requirements. Congress should also ensure the law provides the flexibility necessary for program managers to focus on managing technology risks, leveraging competitive pressures in industry, and planning for sustainment, rather than on filling boxes on a bureaucratic checklist. Today there is a patchwork quilt of requirements relating to risk reduction, acquisition strategies and sustainment that must be separately satisfied and that don’t form a coherent whole. This leads to piecemeal compliance, rather than integrated plans and strategies.

Looking farther ahead, Congress should lay the foundation for future progress on issues such as reducing barriers to entry for defense acquisition, particularly for commercial technology; by simplifying government cost accounting; and, following up on the bipartisan Improve Acquisition Act of 2010 by clarifying requirements to ensure the government pays for the services it really needs. These are issues where more time may be required to develop consensus and where policy is still evolving, but where significant room for improvement remains.

The elements are all in place for significant legislation to improve defense acquisition in 2015. The new Congress should make this issue a top early priority, and demonstrate that Congress can again come together in the cause of applying sound practices to defense acquisition.