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Rep. Thornberry Tries To Fix Pentagon Buying: The Kitchen Approach

Posted by Justin Johnson on



OK, Justin Johnson is a Republican, a committed one who works at the Heritage Foundation. And you can sort of expect him to support things the GOP is doing. But in this op-ed he’s addressing one of the fundamental policy issues with which the House, Senate and Pentagon are grappling: how to speed acquisition and better control costs, and change the long-term trend away from slower and more costly. Read on to see what he says about the efforts by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Mac Thornberry. The Editor.

Believe it or not, some parts of Congress are actually working. The House Armed Services Committee is one of the few bright spots on Capitol Hill. Its chairman, Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, recently released the “Acquisition Agility Act,” a discussion draft of a bill aimed at improving how the military acquires major systems.

Before considering the proposal itself, it’s important to put this bill in context. Last year Thornberry and his Senate counterpart, Sen. John McCain, passed the most significant defense reform bill in recent years. It eliminated decades of overgrown congressional reporting requirements, streamlined the Pentagon bureaucracy and included significant acquisition reforms. It even included major reforms to the military’s retirement system. (Similar changes to other federal entitlement programs would have been front-page news and sparked massive partisan bickering.)

Thornberry and McCain have both publicly committed to continuing their reform effort this year. Among the items on their table are Goldwater-Nichols reform and military healthcare reform. Thornberry’s Acquisition Agility Act is just the latest step of a reform-minded leader in Congress.

The defense acquisition system is massive. The Thornberry bill is no silver bullet — nor does it pretend to be. Rather, it’s a reasonable step forward, with some big ideas underneath.

The biggest idea is to separate the development of new technology from the development of new platforms into which new technology will go. Thornberry calls this “modular open system architecture.” Instead of trying to build a new plane or tank that will be the world’s best for the next 40 years, the idea is to design a plane or tank so that it can be repeatedly and easily upgraded with new technology.

That’s a common-sense approach. A house (the platform) might be built to last 100 years, but the fridge or television or furnace (the components) will almost certainly be upgraded periodically. On a much smaller scale, a cell phone (the platform) might last a couple of years while the operating system and apps on the phone (the components) will be updated multiple times.

Of course, to implement this common-sense approach successfully means thinking through at the very beginning how the whole system of a platform and components will work. Intelligent (and potentially tough) choices have to be made at the outset about what capabilities need to be built into the platform, and what capabilities are likely to be replaced or improved in the future and should therefore be resident in components. A kitchen with built-in appliances will be more expensive to upgrade than a kitchen that is designed for appliances to be replaced. Replaceable appliances, however, need more than just a refrigerator-shaped hole in the kitchen – they need the electrical, water and gas built into the walls of the kitchen. Again, this means designing for upgrades from the beginning.

These analogies point to another feature of Thornberry’s bill: the importance of determining which capabilities of the plane or tank are most likely to evolve during the life of the vehicle, and what minimum capability is needed when the system is initially fielded. A tank’s propulsion system is unlikely to be upgraded over the next decade or two, but a tank’s communication and targeting systems almost certainly will. And if a key component is relatively easy to upgrade or replace, the tank can be built with a version of that component today that is mature and reliable, leading to more affordable and timely acquisition programs.

The Pentagon can already build things using a “modular open architecture system.” The problem is that it just generally doesn’t. Current incentives in the acquisition system and in the larger DoD-OMB-Congress budget process often lead decision-makers in the opposite direction. Instead of aiming for a reasonable solution that can be upgraded over time, new programs often aim for a perfect solution in unrealistic timeframes and at unrealistic prices.

The Thornberry bill requires that new major defense acquisition programs use the “modular open architecture” method. This certainly won’t solve all of defense acquisition’s problems. In fact, it only covers 39% of DOD’s research and procurement budget. Nor is it a one-size-fits-all proposal as some critics have argued. Instead, it’s a proposal that will evolve as Congress works on the NDAA. But and if implemented, the bill would significantly alter how major defense systems are acquired.

Only time will tell if this proposal actually works. But Thornberry’s bill, and his willingness to invite public comment on it, is exactly the type of thinking and leadership we need from Congress.

This is what congressional oversight should look like. Perhaps the rest of Congress can watch and learn.

Justin Johnson is the senior budget policy analyst in the Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense.

What do you think?