The Buzz

America's Military Is the Best: What about the Acquisition Process?

According to Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology—in other words, the Pentagon’s top arms buyer—the state of military acquisition in the United States is fairly good today.

Whether one ultimately agrees or not, this is a welcome antidote to the more frequent media focus on nonperforming weapons, cost overruns, Congressional logrolling, and other narratives that characterize much of the discussion of the state of American military acquisition in the modern world.

Kendall appeared at a Brookings event on Monday April 13, at which he again discussed his “better buying power” initiatives that have characterized his tenure at the under secretary position, a job he has held since 2012.

Eschewing any belief in silver bullets as a way to improve how DoD equips today’s American soldier, sailor, airman, and Marine, he made a pitch for a broad-based, incrementalist approach focused largely on making gradual improvements to the quality of the Pentagon’s acquisition workforce. That is a civilian-dominated group, numbering some 150,000 full-time federal employees, in DC and around the country.

The current version of better buying power, known as version “3.0,” advocates as a key theme further empowerment and education of DoD’s program managers—the individuals who supervise specific weapons buying efforts for the military services.

Kendall gave a grade of “B+, maybe A-“to the overall DoD acquisition process. Many will find that surprisingly good. And perhaps there is an element of “grading one’s own homework” going on; after all, Kendall has been running this effort long enough to want to believe that things are going fairly well.

But in fairness, he made a pretty good case. America’s weapons are easily the best in the world. And while development costs for new weapons frequently exceed estimates, some of that is the inevitable consequence of the fact that invention is a messy and unpredictable process. Once DoD gets into the production phase, it does better, according to Kendall, with weapons cost growth more modest (perhaps 10 percent, in contrast to 30 percent in the R&D phase, he said). These figures are not universally accepted, but the thrust of his comments was certainly credible.

Former Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn spoke next at the event. He concurred with Kendall’s grade for how DoD, and the industrial base of private firms making equipment for the American military, perform in regard to major weapons systems. But Lynn was more critical of how the Pentagon handles information technology, saying that DoD tends to have big problems with anything affected by Moore’s Law. (Indeed, Kendall himself had acknowledged that bringing new computer technologies into the arsenal, through faster and more modular approaches, is where DoD can and should improve the most.) Lynn gave this part of the Pentagon system a grade of perhaps C-.

Lynn’s arguments also included the observation that DoD needs to involve a broader community of equipment providers. Since the Cold War ended, it has depended a bit too much on a relatively small number of U.S. firms whose primary focus is defense. These firms are excellent, to be sure. But there is not quite enough back and forth with the commercial world, not enough willingness in the Pentagon to purchase from foreign providers, and insufficient outreach to Silicon Valley. All of this at a time when traditional defense firms are scaling back their own R&D investments and potentially failing to develop and offer up an adequate portfolio of affordable new technologies for the future U.S. military.

Brookings fellow and Coast Guard officer Jason Tama rounded out the discussion, picking up where Lynn left off on the issue of Silicon Valley. He drove home the importance of making information technology and computer firms feel that they can access, and navigate, the DoD procurement labrynth, without risking intellectual property rights or reasonable profit margins along the way.

He also favored a more flexible and adaptable Pentagon civil service, including for the acquisition workforce. According to Tama, that approach should allow people to move in and out of government more easily as a way to induce more talented young people to work for the feds—and along the way, to change its culture in ways that would in fact make Silicon Valley feel more drawn to the military acquisition system.

On the whole, the event produced lots of calls for ongoing, patient reforms. No one proposed any panaceas—say, a new type of federal procurement contract system that would ensure fewer cost overruns, or a new piece of federal legislation that could solve most remaining problems for us quickly and easily.

While the panelists underscored the need for continued improvement and reform, it was also refreshing to hear that at least certain parts of the DoD system merited respectable assessments, in their eyes.

The system needs big improvement in some ways, especially in regard to IT and computers, but at the same time, it is far from broken. In a messy and scandal-plagued world, and a partisan and often gridlocked Washington, that is a nice message to hear—even if it must not be confused with a call to complacency.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow and director of research in the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

Image: Flickr/ U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos