For some time now, Congress has been fairly erupting with legislation designed to increase competition in defense procurements. There is general agreement that goods and services tend to cost less when competing contractors bid against each other to supply them. Indeed, the statistics do indicate that costs go down as competition goes up.
But there is also broad concern that Congress, in its enthusiasm for competition, may not have left enough room for the services to apply common sense in procurement and that the lock-step competition drill may lead to new problems. (See editorial, “Legislating Competition, ” August 1985 issue.)
Amid these concerns, the armed forces are busily implementing the competition initiatives imposed by Congress, plus others they thought up themselves. The Air Force, for example, began appointing competition advocates three years ago. It now has about 1,500 of them working full time, mostly in Systems Command, which spends sixty percent of USAF’s procurement dollars, and in Logistics Command, which spends thirty percent.
Panelists at an Aerospace Education Foundation Roundtable held in Washington on November 21 examined the consequences, good and bad, of this heavy emphasis on competition.
Gen. Robert T. Marsh, USAF (Ret.), former AFSC Commander and Roundtable moderator, said that in the vigorous movement for procurement reform, “no one subject has received so much of the reformists’ attention as competition.” The belief is widely held, he said, that the military can achieve significant cost reductions while increasing quality and performance if it will take advantage of the opportunities for more competition. He and his fellow panelists then set about exploring the validity of that assumption.
“My own studies of defense programs have shown that when used properly, competition produces on the average a twenty-eight percent reduction in gross price,” said Norman R. Augustine, Senior Vice President, Martin Marietta Corp.. and author of the incisive book Augustine ‘s Laws. The circumstances, however, are not always appropriate for competition. Mr. Augustine Cited one such example that he had witnessed: a decision that two con tractors were needed for competition’s sake when there wasn’t enough production to keep a single factory employed efficiently. That, he said, is “akin to trying to leap deep chasms in two bounds.”
“Competition is just one strategy that we use to achieve both quality and affordability within our defense programs.” said Dr. James P. Wade, Jr., Assistant Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Logistics. “There are others—for example, multiyear procurement, preplanned product improvement, cooperation in an arms sense with our allies, and the important aspect of having joint service programs development.” He said that it is Pentagon policy to use competition “to the maximum extent practical” and to encourage prime contractors to generate competition among subcontractors. At the same time, he acknowledged that defense acquisition is an exercise in balancing cost, schedule, and performance and that too much emphasis on any one of these can play hob with the other two.
“Our acquisition strategies might be good, they might be fast, and they might be cheap. but I think we can say that they can’t be all three at the same time.” Dr. Wade said.
Mr. Augustine observed that “technical leveling” often occurs as the government interchanges technical ideas among contending contractors, leaving the low bid as the sole means of deciding who gets the job. As a result, he said, some companies are cutting back on innovation in favor of strategies to become the low-cost producer.
“We recognize that competition doesn’t solve all problems. but generally we believe that there has been too little of it, and we want more of it,” said Rep. Jim Courier (R-N. J.). Congressman Courier rejected the idea that cost alone must be the objective of competition. “1 think you can compete other things besides cost,” he said. “I think you can compete reliability and survivability and maintainability and quality and speed,” adding that “no one should suggest that competition means you forget those other necessary qualities in that which you’re trying to get.”
Brig. Gen. Gerald C. Schwankl, USAF’s Competition Advocate General, said that the Air Force obligates more than $45 billion in some 4,000.000 contract actions a year. In FY ’85, eighty-two percent of the contract actions (representing 39.2 percent of the money) were the result of competition. This was a twenty-five percent improvement over the previous year, and the Air Force expects to do even better in FY ’86. About half the total procurement dollars are spent in the “follow-on to competition” category. The portion awarded on a noncompetitive basis was sixteen percent in FY ’84 and 12.8 percent in FY ’85.
Fielding a question from the audience—How much money has been saved, really, compared to what it takes to maintain 1,500 bureaucrats in the competition advocate programGeneral Schwankl said that competition and spare parts procurement reform had saved $525 million in FY ’84 in Logistics Command alone. “In the first nine months of FY ’85, we saved $518 million,” he said. “These are audit-able, documented figures. So yes. they [the competition advocates] are paying their way.”
Panelist Tim T. Carrington, Pentagon correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, recalled how the securities business struggled with the question of competition in the 1970s. “Wall Street, although it’s at the core of the United States capitalist system, was quite a protected industry and resisted competition until ten years ago, when it was forced on them by Congress, which decided that the fixed commission rate—sort of a cartel system that had been maintained over the years—should be dismantled and that the forces of competition should be brought to the securities business,” he said. “It was something that was generally resisted by the industry. It was highly disruptive after rates were unfixed, and a lot of companies went out of business. But I think it has been concluded that, in the end, the surviving companies were considerably stronger than any of the companies were five years before.”
He recognized the enormous differences between defense and the securities industry, but said. “I think that what they have in common is that disruptions are to be expected.” Mr. Carrington added. “Probably, in the end, if it is handled wisely, it’s going to yield a stronger industry with stronger components after it shakes down.”
One of the potentially most harmful side effects of excessive competition is that it discourages industry from making capital investments because it cannot depend on sufficiently long production runs over which to amortize expenses. “If one wins a contract for a new airplane and the contractor knows it’s only going to build 100 of those airplanes before a competition takes place, one can afford to tool in a very different fashion than if you think you’re going to get to build the whole 1,000 of them,” Mr. Augustine said. “If you know you’re going to build the 1,000, you can spend the money to build a more efficient factory.”
There is also an effect on general research activity, because under the complex acquisition rules, the amount that industry can bill for independent research and development (IR&D) and bid-and-proposal preparation is limited by a common ceiling, expressed as a percentage of current contracts. Emphasis on competition naturally stimulates bids and proposals.
“An increasing share of industry’s discretionary money that used to go to advancing the state of the art, to doing research, today is going to proposal writing—a very significant increase,” Mr. Augustine said.
Expanding on that in response to a question from General Marsh, he added, “Day-to-day pressures of staying in business are such that if you have a choice between writing a proposal to bring in business tomorrow and doing research on something that will pay off ten years from now, it’s very difficult to look your shareholders in the eye and not respond to a request for proposals.”
Congressman Courier said that he has begun to worry about a “military-congressional complex” that works at cross-purposes with the objective. “Congress is becoming much too involved in the procurement process,” he said. “We have to allow it to breathe.
“Congress, of course, wants small business set-asides: we want minority set-asides; we want to make sure that New Jersey, a state like mine, receives its ‘fair share’ of contracts. We’re interested in a jobs program. Basically. the Department of Defense is a jobs program for various members of Congress. We’re interested in social engineering as well. I’m a little concerned that Congress has taken its job and its responsibilities so seriously that we are getting in the way of true competition.”
As uncertainty, pressure, and bureaucratic requirements grow in defense contracting, many small vendors are dealing themselves out. Mr. Augustine said that he had recently heard from a small firm that had long supplied about ten very special washers a year for a low-production defense program:
“We received a box of washers from the president of this company, and it was accompanied by a letter that said, ‘Our firm is made up of good Americans. We want to do our share for the defense effort. Therefore, we’re providing you with a ten-year supply of washers, courtesy of ourselves. Now please go find somebody else, and leave us alone.’
“Competition in the broad sense is a superb mechanism, but as with many other things, one can have too much of a good thing.”