Last week, the staff of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s permanent subcommittee on investigations published a weighty compendium of the responses of 31 experts’ on defense acquisition to a set of questions about fixing the defense acquisition system. Each of the experts provided responses to a set of questions formulated by the members of the subcommittee and the staff. The subcommittee staff drew on these responses to identify key concerns and themes.
As someone who has studied and written on the defense acquisition system and its shortcomings for more years than I care to admit, I was initially surprised by the common themes that emerged from the expert commentary. None of them involved major reforms. Instead they all dealt with personnel and management issues. In particular, the experts called for attracting and retaining a quality workforce, providing better training for that workforce, giving them greater incentives to control costs, and improving leadership and accountability within the defense acquisition system. A better quality, better trained workforce is a good thing but it isn’t the most important reform. This is like saying that what the Titanic needed was a better trained and incentivized band.
Improving the recruitment and training of the acquisition workforce while asking it to preside over a dysfunctional and ultimately broken system is a pointless exercise. There are too many rules, regulations, requirements, reviews, tests, reports and opportunities for second-guessing past decisions. Even if each step in the process were done exquisitely by the best trained workforce ever seen, it would make almost no difference because the system as a whole is overly complex with too many moving parts, too many individuals with authority but no responsibility, and too much of a focus on process over results.
As anyone experienced with the science and politics of surveys and polling knows, who you include in a poll or survey and the way the questions are organized and framed can determine the answers. Upon closer examination of the report, it turns out that this effort is no different. It isn’t surprising that the majority of the experts identified resolution of workforce and management issues as among the key reforms needed to fix the defense acquisition system. The selection of experts was weighted towards those whose careers were inside the Beltway: former Congressional staffers, government civilians, retired military officers and defense think tankers. Several individuals are current DoD senior executives with a vested interest in the current system. According to their biographies, only one individual had ever been a program manager or program executive officer on a major procurement. Notably in the minority were individuals whose careers were in the private sector, those that have struggled to run a business and make a profit while dealing with a dysfunctional acquisition system. The one participant with extensive business (and government) experience, Norm Augustine, made the case for focusing on the acquisition system from industry’s perspective.
There is little if any evidence that nations that espouse centralized planning and government-owned production come close to matching the power of the Free Enterprise System broadly embraced by the U.S., including when providing defense equipment and services. Yet it is often overlooked that within that system the firms that provide equipment and services, and bear the immense fiduciary responsibility of doing so, must compete in the same markets for employees, capital and shareholders as Apple, Microsoft and Toyota. Further, over the decades the differing roles and responsibilities of government and industry have too often been permitted to degenerate into an intense adversarial relationship of a type that could never endure between a [sic] commercial buyers and sellers.
Similarly, the character of the questions given to the experts, were largely about how to “tweak” the current system. This inevitably led to a predictable set of responses. A few contributors pointed out that the questions were biased in favor of the existing acquisition system. One contributor, Irv Blickstein, put his finger on the problem with this report: “It may well be that, as can be noted by the questions raised by the senators, we have come to believe that if only we had a little more, and more binding regulation, all would be right in the world. The tenor of the questions suggests we know the answers. . .” Another, former Under Secretary of Defense for AT&L Paul Kaminiski, observed that “no combination of statutes, regulations and policies can ensure that major weapons systems are delivered on time, at a reasonable cost, and provide the needed capability. The acquisition system depends upon people making good decisions involving complex issues. Good decisions come from good judgment.”
You cannot get a car whose engine is firing on five of six cylinders and whose tires are underinflated to perform better by giving it a fresh coat of paint or providing the operator with additional driver’s education. The reason Apple could invent and bring to market the iPod, iPhone and iPad and the Army hasn’t been able to field a new armored fighting vehicle in more than thirty years isn’t because the former has a better acquisition workforce than the latter. It is because the commercial marketplace works well and the defense acquisition system doesn’t.
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