TYSON’S CORNER: Dear Senator McCain, we need to talk — sincerely, Frank Kendall. The Pentagon’s top buyer made clear today that he doesn’t know nearly enough about McCain’s ambitious acquisition reform plan, and some of what he does know makes him nervous.
In particular, Undersecretary Kendall said, he doesn’t want the four service chiefs — the Army Chief of Staff, Chief of Naval Operations, Marine Corps Commandant, and Air Force Chief of Staff — to have greater legal authority over the acquisition process.
“I don’t think they should be doing decisions about what kind of contract to use. I don’t think they should be making judgments generally about what kind of risk mitigation to do. I think those decisions should be left to acquisition people,” he said.
Why? “[When] services have dominated decisions about the structure of a program… we’ve had some pretty big train wrecks,” Kendall said, citing the Navy’s A-12 stealth bomber (canceled), the Army’s Future Combat System (canceled) and the tri-service F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (overhauled). “We’ve had a lot of disasters in acquisition because people believed what they wanted to believe.”
(“Amen,” said a Hill staffer in an unsolicited email to Breaking Defense after reading the original version of this story).
But the service chiefs do and will continue to have an important role in other parts of the acquisition system, Kendall emphasized. “I’ve reached out to the service chiefs,” Kendall said at the breakfast. “There’s a perception, which I think is inaccurate, that they have been excluded somehow from acquisition. They have an enormously important role in acquisition. They set requirements first of all, [i.e.] they define what the products supposed to do.. [They] manage personnel. [They] control the budgets of their services.”
“It’s very important to have their counsel [and] they should be more engaged,” Kendall said. For example, he said, “I welcome them to come to Defense Acquisition Boards.” But that’s a far cry from more legal authorities.
McCain’s House counterpart, House Armed Services chairman Mac Thornberry, included some provisions on the service chiefs in his committee’s version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act, and Kendall’s already sent Thornberry a letter expressing his concerns. The Senate Armed Services Committee bill also includes provisions empowering the chiefs — but Kendall doesn’t know exactly how.
“We’re working — we’re trying to work closely with both the authorization committees on the House and Senate Side,” Kendall said, correcting himself mid-sentence. “There are two approaches being taken on the Hill right now.” In stark contrast to Thornberry’s laboriously consultative and highly public push for reform, “Sen. McCain has had a more closed process so far,” Kendall told the Northern Virginia Technology Council this morning. “His bill will be out shortly. We’re not 100% sure what’s he’s going to have in it. He telegraphed some of that in his press conference last week and in the announcement he put out, [and] there are some things in there we really have some questions about.”
So, I asked Kendall after the event, how much contact have you had with McCain?
“I’d like to have a lot more,” Kendall said. “I talked to him in November, I think that’s the last time we had a conversation. I have talked to his staff since the first of the year, two or three times. But we didn’t get a draft of what he was going to do, so we didn’t have a chance to interact on that.” (By contrast, Thornberry made public a draft of his reform legislation months ago and met multiple times with Kendall).
Kendall isn’t just concerned about the service chiefs. “He [McCain] has a lot about use of commercial practices which I need to understand more fully,” Kendall told the press.
Kendall is also concerned about a HASC provision about dual-track careers for uniformed officers who do procurement, essentially requiring them to spend half their career in operational assignments and only half in acquisition jobs. “I think what you end up with in that is someone who’s not really proficient at neither one,” Kendall told the Technology Council breakfast. “I think it’s very important for acquisition people to have some time as an operator — I did — [but] one or two tours, I think, is fine; trying to do a 50-50, I think, is very difficult.”
“If you had a choice between someone who’s always been a doctor and a doctor who spent who’d spent half his life as a lawyer, I think you’d go with the doctor who’d been a doctor all the time,” Kendall said to laughter.
But Kendall devoted the largest share of his energy to shooting down the idea that service chiefs need more legal authorities on acquisition.
“We just need to do some things internally to strengthen our relationship,” he told reporters. “The service chiefs are part of the acquisition team as far as I’m concerned. They should be involved in our decisions, they should be intimately involved. And we’re dependent on them for …. resources, personnel, and requirements.”
But the services don’t have the best built-in checks and balances against optimism. “There are enormous pressures within a military department, within a service, to be optimistic,” said Kendall. “Everyone who’s ever had my job has had to push back against the departments to some degree.”