George Bernard Shaw once observed that “Christianity might be a good thing if anyone ever tried it.” The same can be said for defense acquisition reform. For decades government officials, members of Congress, defense experts and those concerned about wasteful government spending from across the political spectrum have bewailed the Pentagon’s broken acquisition system. But when it comes to practicing what is preached, the political system always seems to come up short. There have been more than 100 studies, reports and commissions over the past four decades on the subject with very little to show in the way of results. Even the most successful efforts, such as the 1985 Packard Commission, had only limited impact over time.
Those pursuing acquisition reform need to realize one essential truth: for the acquisition system to work there must be trust between government and industry. A better system cannot be created by adding more regulation, expanding oversight, increasing the number of acquisition officials, contracting officers and auditors, providing them with more professional education or otherwise making the system more complex. This reality applies to all economic activities and sectors, not just those related to national defense or federal spending. Virtually every economist will tell you that simpler, clearer regulatory systems and tax codes result in increased economic activity, improved job creation and improved revenues to government. But a simpler system can only exist where there is a high degree of trust among the participants.
This truth was demonstrated over the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The peacetime acquisition system was failing to meet warfighter’s urgent operational needs. As a result, the Pentagon created a series of special organizations and offices — kind of like the explosion of religious orders in Medieval Christendom — to do what the established system could not or would not do. The Rapid Equipping Force, Rapid Fielding Initiative and the Joint IED Defeat Organization were remarkably successful precisely because they were liberated from burdens of the traditional acquisition system. Requirements were simply defined, time lines clearly specified, testing was limited and the 80 percent solution was deemed good enough. Where possible these organizations used existing platforms, prototypes and R&D as the basis for their solutions instead of undertaking completely new programs with all their attendant costs and schedule risks. They also forged close partnerships both with industry and research and development organizations. A degree of trust was established well beyond that present in the traditional acquisition system. For those who think that this approach cannot be sustained in peacetime I refer you to the fabled Skunkworks that produced the U-2, SR-71, F-117 stealth fighter and the RQ-170 in shorter time periods and at less cost than any traditional acquisition program.
In essence, successful acquisition programs must be based on a high degree of trust. But trust is a commodity in short supply at the Pentagon. Despite clear evidence to the contrary, there is a presumption in the acquisition system that the private sector is pursuing “excess” profits or otherwise trying to cheat the government. The result is an acquisition system reminiscent of the Inquisition, with the presumption of sin foremost in the design and conduct of oversight activities.
This lack of trust also translates into unwillingness on the part of the acquisition system to incentivize the private sector to improve performance or lower costs. The system is biased to the presumption that individuals and corporations will only do the right thing when forced to do so by omnipresent oversight, review and regulation. The trouble with this unchristian attitude is that it costs the Pentagon dearly in terms of resources expended, time wasted and even lives lost.
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