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Advice for the Next U.S. President: Fix Military Acquisitions

Several leading defense acquisition experts a few observations and recommendations for the next president

4 min read

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's Special Report on What's Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?

PHOTO: Charles Dharapak/Pool/Reuters (2)

”The perennial procurement cycle—going back many decades—of adding layer upon layer of cost and complexity onto fewer and fewer platforms that take longer and longer to build must come to an end. Without a fundamental change in this dynamic, it will be difficult to sustain support for these kinds of weapons programs in the future.” Those aren’t the words of some Pentagon outsider, but of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, in a speech he gave last May to the Heritage Foundation on the need for reform in military acquisitions.

When a new U.S. president takes office in January, he will have the chance, and indeed the responsibility, to finally change things. Here are a few observations and recommendations for the next president from several leading defense acquisition experts.

J. Ronald Fox, professor emeritus at Harvard Business School: ”A new president is likely to be faced with a continuation or increase in the acquisition cost growth practices of the past. With respect to acquisition reform, my advice for the President would be to focus on making measurable improvements in achieving more practical training and longer assignments of government program managers and their staffs.

”As the Government Accountability Office and others have highlighted repeatedly during the past decade, it is essential that the incentives for contractors, program managers, and program executive officers be changed significantly before program cost estimates will become more realistic and before there will be any significant reduction in acquisition costs. Adding more regulations and paperwork is likely to be counterproductive.”

Norman Augustine, former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin and a past undersecretary of the Army: ”The new President faces a challenge of will. That is the issue. Is he willing to take the steps needed to attract first-rate people into government? Is he willing to focus more on product improvements than new developments? Is he willing to quit the dabbling that occurs in funding and managing programs? Once a program gets started, we dabble in it. We start it; we stop it; we change it; we cut the budget; we revise the requirements. Given the breadth of the threat spectrum and the rising cost of defense acquisition, we need a whole new model for what we do. Band-Aids won’t work.

”When I look at the myriad problems on the new President’s platter, I don’t think defense acquisition is going to be his No. 1 issue, which means that it’s going to be hard to make change happen. But that makes it no less important—and suggests that leadership will somehow have to come from within the process itself.”

Paul Kaminski, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition and technology: ”It’s not that we have bad people in the system today; it’s that many of them don’t have sufficient domain experience. The new President will need to strongly support providing education, training, and domain experience to both military and civilian staff involved in acquisition so that they are equipped with the tools and experience needed to do their jobs well. Simply adding another level or two of supervision, which is the frequently suggested quick solution, isn’t going to fix the problem.”

Jacques S. Gansler, former U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics; professor of public policy at the University of Maryland: ”The Defense Department will need to change the acquisition process towards buying lower cost systems. They’re going to have to make some difficult choices.… We are talking about a culture change, overcoming the institutional inertia of wanting only more fighter planes, more big ships, and so forth. If you want to try to change the culture, it takes two things; it takes recognition of a crisis, and I think that will become pretty clear. Secondly, it takes leadership. That’s where this new administration, whoever they are, and the key players have to say that we have a problem, we have to address it honestly, we can’t keep fooling ourselves, and here is the new vision of where we want to go and here is a strategy for getting there.”

David Walker, former comptroller general of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office; president and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation: ”The next President is going to need to set the tone very, very quickly. The next President is going to have to end up with a short priority list that they want to focus on immediately. In looking at what the priorities ought to be, I think acquisition, sourcing, and contract management government-wide with a special emphasis on the Defense Department clearly should be one of those areas. I don’t mean in regard to policy issues, but the operation and execution of government.

”Secondly, the President is going to need to empower and support whoever the director of the Office of Management and Budget is, not just with regard to budget matters but management matters, in order to deal more assertively with the Secretary of Defense and other key players in the Defense Department on these issues. We also need a chief management officer within the Defense Department at the deputy secretary level who can focus full-time on the well-known and long-standing business management challenges within the department.”

Katherine Schinasi, managing director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office: ”It doesn’t matter who wins. The problems of defense acquisition are endemic. The portfolio of approved defense programs is $1.6 trillion dollars, and we have already seen cost overruns of $295 billion in those programs. What we’ve found in the past is that you don’t even recognize the overruns or that a service doesn’t come clean about an overrun until a program is very well established. So what we would expect to see is a demand for additional funds even greater than the $295 billion that we know about if the decision is made to continue funding all of today’s programs.

”There has been an open checkbook for so long that we have lost the connection between the resources we are investing and what the military really needs. The list of wants is not constrained by resources.”

To Probe Further

For more articles and special features, go to What's Wrong with Weapons Acquisitions?

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