WASHINGTON: Sen. John McCain wants the four services chiefs to have more power to buy weapons efficiently and cheaply. Frank Kendall and his colleagues who oversee Pentagon acquisition, technology and logistics (ATL) have made it pretty clear they don’t think that’s a good idea.
So I asked the chairman of the Senate Armed Services committee today what message he had for Mr. Kendall about the sweeping set of acquisition reforms in its version of the annual defense policy bill, the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. In particular, what about the increased powers it would grant the service chiefs?
“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.”
As Breaking D readers know:
- The heads of the four armed services would get much increased control over weapons programs and requirements, something outgoing Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno has pushed hard for. The Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) — in particular the undersecretary of acquisition, technology and logistics — will lose some power.
- The services will be punished for poor performance and must ensure they know about changes in requirements, cost and schedule. In the event of a Nunn-McCurdy breach, the services will have to pay a 3 precent penalty to a rapid prototyping fund overseen by OSD. Also, oversight of the program would shift to OSD until the program is back on track.
As things stand, the military leaders of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force decide what the weapons they buy need to be able to do. Those are called requirements. The services often don’t think those requirements and their implications all the way through, especially the Army. That can be a major cause of cost overruns, schedule delays, and ultimately cancelled programs, as the Army has discovered time and again over the last two decades.
But it’s not the services that do the canceling. They seem incapable of taking that step, perhaps because the services manage weapons programs after they come through the requirements process and have a great deal invested in the programs, culturally and fiscally. When they goof, the Undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics has complete legal authority to take the programs over and run them. And it’s usually someone at the top of the chain of command — think Bob Gates — who turns to the services and says — that’s enough: Shut it down.
Add to that the fact that Kendall and his colleagues believe they have begun to turn around the Pentagon’s acquisition system. The F-35 is in better shape. The Army hasn’t made any big mistakes lately. Air Force costs have actually come down for three years in a row. To say the ATL folks have little confidence in the services’ ability to do a better job would be an understatement.
But as Sydney’s piece about Navy Secretary Ray Mabus made clear today, the services are gunning for OSD money. The pot is going to shrink and everyone wants everyone else to lose.
As Sen. McCain told me this afternoon: “We are not eliminating ATL. What I think you are seeing is a classic turf fight in the Pentagon.”