Sluggish Acquisition Dooming US Military

Former Air Force acquisition executive William LaPlante testifies before the House Armed Services Committee on May 17, 2017, along with other members of the so-called "Section 809 Panel" on its interim report on acquisition reform. Screenshot photo.

The Pentagon’s acquisition processes are so slow and antiquated that they actually pose an immediate and serious threat to national security, authors of an interim report on acquisition reform told Congress Wednesday.

The so-called “Section 809 Panel,” put in motion by Congress in its Fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, released the first of what it expects to be a series of interim reports on how Pentagon buying should be overhauled, and not through a series of “tinkering and incremental approaches” but through “bold solutions” that affect every acquisition regulation, report, study, and milestone required by law, study authors said.

“DOD does not have the luxury to wait,” they said in the report, because adversaries are modernizing their militaries so fast that the Pentagon can’t keep ahead any longer.

At a hearing of the House Armed Services Committee, panel chair Deidre Lee, former director of defense procurement and acquisition policy, said the panel aims to give Congress “data-driven, actionable information” on how to restructure the acquisition system.

Though the group acknowledged in the report that “in the last 50 years, there have been more than 100 reports, studies, and analyses” of acquisition reform, this one must succeed because the US is “losing dominance” in military technology. Though Lee promised incremental reports, she said the group would like until January 2019 to finish its work, which will examine every aspect of procurement, including a “line-by-line” scrutiny of the Federal Acquisition Regulations affecting defense; the “5000-series” of regulations.

HASC chair Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) expressed dismay that it would take that long, and asked for useful updates “so we can get to the work” of debating and legislating changes.

Former Air Force acquisition executive William LaPlante said the regs will be studied “to see where they came from”—noting that some date back to 1947 and, though obsolete, are still on the books and require compliance. He recommended getting rid of any that don’t add value or significantly slow down processes and emphasized that “we’ll be doing your work” in this regard, sparing the Hill from such a comprehensive review.

LaPlante noted that it typically takes 18 months “to go from the request for proposals to contract award, … and that’s for sole source.” LaPlante, Lee, and other panelists said the system as it stands actually deters companies with innovative solutions to military problems, because of the paperwork and long waits for decisions. Small businesses on the cutting edge “can’t wait” for the Pentagon to make up its mind about requirements, LaPlante said, and seven big companies are shying away from working for the DOD because “you change the requirements at the last minute.”

Panelists agreed that there must be a culture change to “decriminalize” contractors who are, after all, looking to make a profit and won’t get involved in DOD work unless they can.

LaPlante also noted that software updates taking 18 months are ridiculous because contractors “can’t work with that” and are on their own schedule of constant software release. He said Facebook does quite a few “every night.”

Members of the commission insisted Congress has to be willing to give up some of its oversight requirements and Lee said it must refrain from exacting terrible retribution if program managers “make an honest mistake” in an effort to speed up processes.

LaPlante noted that the culture of “being afraid” of seeming unfair, or of losing a protest, has made the DOD too timid to “do the right thing” when it involves simply awarding a contract sole-source, instead of undertaking a much more labor- and time-intensive competition if such an approach makes more sense.

Making defense work more attractive is also essential if there are to be enough suppliers to fulfill US military needs, LaPlante said. Deterring new entrants, coupled with consolidation of existing defense companies, means “we‘re one merger or acquisition away” from a single supplier each in the category of ships, fighters, and helicopters, to name just a few.

The report noted that since the 1980s, some “300 prime contractors, platform providers, and subtier companies” have merged “to form the five mega-primes of today: Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and General Dynamics.”