When U.S. Army leaders decided they needed an upgraded version of the M-1 Abrams tank, they wanted to get it without enduring what they consider to be a cumbersome formal acquisition process.
Any program of this scale would ordinarily be classified as a Major Defense Acquisition Program and be subject to the oversight reviews and regulations that status entails. To avoid this, Army leaders claimed a major modernization effort to a weapon central to their very identity was a mere design tweak, and managed the project through the far less rigorous Engineering Change Proposal process.
This is a problem. The MDAP process may be cumbersome, but its intended purpose is to ensure the Pentagon properly evaluates its needs and then enters into programs that will properly meet them. It is also meant to exert the kind of pressure necessary to keep costs under control.
While the system is indisputably flawed — the F-35 is an MDAP — the services should not be permitted to simply ignore the laws. Doing so will almost certainly result in weapons of dubious combat value and more cost overruns.
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In performing such a maneuver to avoid the toughest of the acquisitions process, the Army is hardly alone. All of the services are increasingly resorting to similar schemes for other high-profile programs.
The danger to the taxpayers, to say nothing of the men and women who will have to take these systems into combat one day, is that these complex and expensive weapons systems aren’t subjected the kind of outside scrutiny necessary to ensure the services are purchasing suitable and effective equipment.
Hardly a year goes by without some effort to modernize the Pentagon’s weapons buying process. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, succeeded in pushing into law a provision to split the Pentagon’s Office of Acquisition, Technology & Logistics into at least two offices.
The long-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee believes this will allow the separate undersecretaries to focus more on their particular offices . The new office of Research and Engineering will focus on innovation while the Acquisition and Sustainment office deals with basic business functions associated with buying and maintaining new weapons.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, has introduced legislation meant to streamline the process for the past three years. The latest version would allow the services to purchase more items through commercial marketplaces.
Previous similar efforts, such as when the Pentagon attempted to change the definition of commercial items to avoid the competitive bidding process, proved problematic. Earlier efforts were geared towards improving program business models and reducing the process’s reports and paperwork .
Congress also effectively outsourced acquisition reform to the defense industry when it created the “ Section 809 Panel ” as part of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to make recommendations to streamline the way the Pentagon buys weapons. This panel is comprised of several members with deep ties to the defense industry and is the subject of a concerted lobbying effort by the contracting community.
The effectiveness of such efforts is not yet clear, but that might not matter. The usual result of most such efforts is an even more sluggish process — it is a rare problem that can’t be made worse with the addition of more bureaucracy.
From the perspective of the Pentagon, the defense contractors, and their allies on Capitol Hill, there are advantages in procuring weapon systems through means other than the formal acquisition process. The acquisition process is so complicated and involved that the Department of Defense created the Defense Acquisition University in 1991 to educate personnel on navigating various aspects of the process. A full explanation of the process would fill volumes, but even the basics provide a glimpse into the complexity of the process.
A Major Defense Acquisition Program goes through three separate phases. At the end of each phase, a program goes through a review process to determine whether it has met the criteria to move onto the next phase. These transitions are called “milestones.”
That means we will be spending $22 million to upgrade a $6 million vehicle.
A project begins when the services identify a new military need, or what is known as a capability. This is done through the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System. This process figures out whether a new weapon system is actually needed to fill the perceived capability gap or if a change in tactics or some other non-material solution can get the job done.
This work is reviewed by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. If they determine a new weapon system is needed, then it goes through the Material Solution Analysis Phase .