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Pentagon’s Top Acquisition Job Gone, Reshaped In Defense Policy Bill

Posted by Colin Clark on

Frank Kendall

Frank Kendall

UPDATED: Adds Comment By Head of Professional Services Council, David Berteau

WASHINGTON: The post of undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, currently held by the estimable Frank Kendall, will be no more come 2018.

A Senate staff member confirms that the post will continue through 2017, according to language in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act to be unveiled this afternoon. But the position disappears and is split into pieces in February 2018, “and is renamed the USD R&E (Research and Engineering) and will remain #3 in the Department. At the same time (02-18) a second position is created — USD Acquisition and Sustainment. All current political positions under AT&L have been abolished,” the staffer writes in an email.

The Pentagon must “review and report back to us on the ideal reorganization structure below the two undersecretaries, but in the first year we are giving the Department the complete flexibility to remake the OSD acquisition function as it sees fit,” the aide writes.


The move did not attract positive comment from the two sources I reached.

“We tried this in 1985. Secretary Weinberger split off Acquisition from R&E and combined it with Logistics from Manpower. Almost immediately the two organizations began fighting one another over who was in charge of which milestone decisions,” David Berteau, head of the Professional Services council and recently a senior Pentagon acquisition official, writes in an email. “The deputy secretary resolved the conflict by moving all decisions up to him. This led directly to the Packard Commission recommendation and Goldwater Nichols enactment of a single unified under secretary. A similar outcome is likely under the new arrangement, and to date there has been no clear statement of what problem this organizational break up will solve.”

So, why split this position? Congress is notorious for trying to reform through reorganization, with mixed results — witness the decade-plus of dysfunction at the Department of Homeland Security — but Hill staff briefing the press today argued the current bureaucratic set-up in the Pentagon had to change.

How many companies have their R&D chief and their procurement chief be the same person? None, said one senior armed services committee aide. The cultures are too different: R&D requires risk-taking and innovation to get new technology, acquisition requires a steady hand and certainty to get low cost. That’s why AT&L must be broken up, restoring the Research & Engineering job that previously existed in the Pentagon and giving steady-state acquisition its own, separate organization.

That said, the armed services committees don’t want to impose such a major organization change on a new administration that already has enough to do with its transition, which is why the bill would give the Pentagon until February 2018 to implement the split. Conversely, the bill also let the Trump Administration implement the change immediately if desired.

The suspended sentence also gives a whole legislative cycle to tweak the reform plan. There’s already a major question mark that the armed services committees plan to take up next year, the staffers said. Research, development, and engineering activities clearly go to the new undersecretary for R&E, procurement and sustainment go to the undersecretary for acquisition, but there’s an alphabet soup of other agencies reporting to ATL on everything from missile defense (MDA) to information technology (DISA) to contract management (DCMA), and it’s not clear where they should go. Creating a third undersecretary to supervise them is on the table, the staffers said. UPDATE ENDS

John McCain

John McCain

Sen. John McCain pushed this one hard. When I asked him about his reforms in June last year — which did not yet include abolishing the ATL position — he said this:

“I say to them I’d be glad to provide a long list of programs and the cost overruns associated with those programs, the absolutely outrageous overruns and even failures completely of various programs for the last 10 years. Future Combat System –– we’ve never seen a single result. The [USS] Gerald R. Ford: $2.4 billion overrun and that overrun is not over yet,” McCain replied at an event hosted by the American Action Forum. “Anybody who believes, as they seem to in ATL, that the status quo is satisfactory [–] they’re not reflecting the concerns of the taxpayers of America.”

Trying to get expert comment on whether this is good or bad and why.

What do you think?