A major part of Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ legacy may be his efforts to reform the weapons acquisition system. The Secretary has repeatedly lashed the acquisition system for being unresponsive to the needs of the warfighter, too slow and too expensive. The defense landscape is littered with cancelled programs that cost billions, lasted for decades and produced very little. It took the Secretary’s direct intervention to get MRAPs to the troops and to force the Air Force to deploy an adequate number of Predators.
Now the Department of Defense is engaged in an orgy of reform. There are the Secretary’s initiatives to increase the size of the corps of acquisition professionals, reduce reliance on private contractors and cut overhead. The Office of Management and Budget has weighed in with new regulations intended to clarify the definition of inherently governmental responsibilities, thereby insourcing work once done by private contractors. Congress added to the tumult with the Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act (WSARA) which is intended to limit the explosive cost growth of weapons systems through improved cost estimation, increased competition and elimination of conflicts of interest.
While well intentioned, many of these efforts are likely to add to the problems of a dysfunctional acquisition system, not reform it. Increasing the size of the DoD bureaucracy and insourcing work will drive costs up and slow the process. By duplicating existing regulations, adding fresh layers of bureaucracy and creating new reporting mandates, WSARA has made the acquisition system even less responsive. The emphasis on level playing fields and increased competition has reduced communications between industry and defense officials, making the latter even less capable of exercising judgments vis-à-vis acquisition issues.
The real problem with the reform effort is that it is trying to improve an acquisition system that needs to be killed. This is a system that had its birth in World War Two and came to full flower in the Cold War. It is the wrong system for the realities of the 21st Century. It failed to meet the demands of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The requirements system failed to anticipate the character of these conflicts or the needs they created. DoD had to create special organizations and processes such as the Rapid Fielding Initiative and the Rapid Equipping Force to get critical equipment to the warfighters. Special organizations, such as the Joint IED Defeat Organization, were stood up to handle complex new threats. During this same period, the Secretary of Defense announced the cancellation or restructuring of dozens of major weapons programs, the contrast between what works and what doesn’t is stark.
More important, the acquisition system is increasingly out of sync with the modern industrial world. Critics of defense acquisition love to point to the commercial IT industry which has an innovation cycle measured in months while the Pentagon’s acquisition process generally takes years. But this same situation is true in many other areas. Defense no longer leads the nation in technology innovation. If anything, the present acquisition system stifles innovation. Despite the sincere call by defense officials for more competition, the acquisition system’s rules, regulations, reporting requirements, decision processes and liability requirements make it increasingly difficult for dedicated defense companies to operate successfully. As for bringing more commercial companies into the defense sphere, forget about it.
An acquisition system that takes years to cough up a requirement, conduct a competition and initiate a program cannot hope to match the speed at which the threat is changing. Our two current wars have demonstrated something we should have known all along: we are faced with agile, innovative adversaries. This was driven home in the fight to defeat IEDs where the cycle time for new threats and effective countermeasures such as improved jammers could be measured in months, even weeks. Our adversaries are able to take advantage of modern commercial technologies and the associated cycle times while DoD is not.
Defenders of the current system will argue that there is a difference between wartime and peacetime acquisition. As our wars wind down, it is time to return to the established acquisition system, reformed of course. This will provide the needed oversight and management that was missing from acquisition during the war years. This is a nonsensical argument. If anything, the peacetime system should be faster and cheaper because the stakes are different. In addition, oversight and management has produced delay, misguided programs and massive increases in cost. This is the system to which we should return?
It is time to take the lessons learned over the past nine years and totally revamp the acquisition process. You cannot reform the current moribund system. All you can do is pull the plug.