In a keynote address, the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Major General Cameron Holt, painted a bleak picture of American weapon acquisition. He stated that the Chinese military is acquiring weapons “five to six times” faster than the United States.
Not only are the Chinese getting weapons faster, but they are also out-spending the United States military in terms of attaining new capabilities. “In purchasing power parity, they spend about one dollar to our 20 dollars to get to the same capability,” Major General Holt explained. “We are going to lose if we can’t figure out how to drop the cost and increase the speed in our defense supply chains.”
Holt explained that it’s not only the dollars and cents of military acquisition—its also an issue of fund distribution. “If we don’t change our resourcing system, none of the rest of it matters,” he said. In fact, the budgeting process could remain the same as it is today, he argued. “If you just change the execution year flexibilities and modernize Congress’s oversight of it to be more patient.”
One of the issues revolves around military budgeting, which can be subject to radical revision at many stages of the acquisition process. Though some military hardware programs may make rapid progress in their early stages, they could be hampered by budget adjustments—in essence, too much bureaucracy. “We also have gotten a very centrally and micromanaged system of appropriations that have served the Cold War well,” Holt said.
Though Congress decides the overall distribution of funds for various programs, the Pentagon has great leeway in determining how that money is spent precisely, potentially putting the kibosh on some programs and prioritizing others.
“In this environment today, it is absolutely going to kill us. We cannot have a system where the appropriations — where it’s in statute that the name of the program is on that money, and the phase within the program is on the statute, so it’s illegal for a program executive officer inside of execution year to look at that and say — ‘No, there’s a better way to allocate those resources,’” Holt continued.
This push and pull between Congress and the Pentagon regarding budgetary priorities—and its effect on military hardware procurement—is all the more troubling when considering the potential for conflict between the United States and China.
With a military confrontation in the Indo-Pacific becoming a real and growing possibility, Holt contends that the United States should straighten out both how programs of merit get funding and how that funding is allocated—before a potential war with China erupts.
Caleb Larson is a multimedia journalist and defense writer with the National Interest. A graduate of UCLA, he also holds a Master of Public Policy and lives in Berlin. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, focusing on American foreign policy, European security, and German society for both print and radio. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson