By Giovanni de Briganti
PARIS --- The tenets of acquisition reform outlined by US Defense Secretary Robert Gates promise to strike at the very heart of the “military-industrial complex” decried by former president Dwight Eisenhower, and the complacent, nepotistic and incestuous culture that has developed in the Pentagon’s disgraced acquisition machinery.
The novelty of Gates’ approach is that it is based not on a political philosophy, nor on a partisan approach, but simply on logic – a fact-based rather than faith-based acquisition reform, as it were.
There is nothing in what Gates told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 27 regarding acquisition reform that has not been said many times before, most notably by the Government Accounting Office in an unbroken line of reports stretching back over decades: freeze requirements before buying; increase competition; use competitive prototyping; ensure technology maturity before moving programs to the next phase, and purchase at more efficient production rates.
The difference, however, is that Gates now has the motive – two wars and lower defense spending to come --, the political backing and the opportunity to implement these changes, and quickly, as now is “one of those rare chances to match virtue to necessity. To critically and ruthlessly separate appetites from real requirements – those things that are desirable in a perfect world from those things that are truly needed.”
Gates also signaled that he is not underestimating the reaction that the hard choices he promises will provoke in the military-industrial complex, which he calls “the stakeholders:”
“It is one thing to speak broadly about the need for budget discipline and acquisition reform. It is quite another to make tough choices about specific weapons systems and defense priorities based solely on national interests. And then to stick to those decisions over time. The President and I need your help as all of us together do what is best for America as a whole in making those decisions,” he told Senators.
A fat chance. During the Jan. 27 hearing, committee members implicitly – and perhaps unthinkingly -- signaled that their priorities were unchanged when they questioned Gates first on their own pet programs, ideas and constituent issues, and only afterwards addressed issues to which they clearly assign lower priority, such as war, soldier welfare and acquisition.
While not unexpected, it must nonetheless have disheartened Gates to hear parochial interests still leading, if not dominating, the debate, minutes after having made what is, arguably, the most significant policy statement made by a serving secretary of defense in living memory.
And, when the hard choices are made, and programs are cut, Congress will spring into action in a Pavlovian attempt to above all save jobs in their districts, egged on by manufacturers that have spread production of major programs all over the map to buy just this kind of congressional “insurance.”
Compared to what will happen then, the fuss about Airbus winning the US Air Force’s tanker competition will seem like a civilized and thoughtful exchange of views because, whatever the rationale, Gates’ decisions on a double handful of major programs (Joint Strike Fighter, F-22, KC-X tanker, Combat SAR helicopter, DDG-1000 destroyer, Littoral Combat Ship, Future Combat Systems, etc.) will spell not only ruin or prosperity, but possibly life or death, for many a contractor.