One of the first casualties was the Crusader artillery program, which was canceled after the Pentagon spent more than $2 billion on it. Then there was the Comanche helicopter debacle, which got the ax after $8 billion. More than twice that amount had been sunk into the Army’s Future Combat System, but that program got killed, too.
In all, between 2001 and 2011 the Defense Department spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs — including a new version of the president’s helicopter — that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
But for evidence of a procurement system that’s broken, critics say look no further than the major programs that are moving forward. They’ve grown half a trillion dollars over their initial price tags and have schedule delays of more than two years, according to the Government Accountability Office.
There are, however, new efforts underway to improve the Pentagon’s purchasing methods.
Those efforts could get a boost from Rep. Mac Thornberry and Sen. John McCain taking the helms of the House and Senate Armed Services committees. Industry officials say they believe that Congress will increasingly not only provide vigorous oversight of troubled programs but also enact meaningful reform.
Thornberry (R-Tex.) has been working on a legislative package for about a year, an effort that coincides with initiatives coming out of the Pentagon to help spur innovation and streamline the acquisitions process. McCain (R-Ariz.) is Congress’s leading critic of wasteful defense spending and is expected to make it one of his top priorities as chairman. Along with Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), he recently issued a compendium of 31 essays from defense and procurement experts on how the Pentagon could better do business.
And now the National Defense Industrial Association is offering its own recommendations in a report to be released Tuesday titled “Pathway to Transformation.”
Again and again, that pathway has thudded into dead ends, as weapons programs continued to come in late, over budget or not at all. And pervasive doubt remains that this time will be different.
“The number one reaction one gets in making the Pentagon work better is ‘Oh, right, we’ve heard that before. Good luck,’ ” Thornberry said recently at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “There’s an enormous amount of skepticism . . . that any thing will really get better. I think it can. It must.”
But now key members of Congress, the Pentagon and industry all seem to be aligned, at least for the moment. And the dense and tedious topic of acquisition reform has become a hot issue in Washington, especially as many believe defense spending will continue to be tightened.
In its report introduction, the NDIA wrote that it “believes that the conditions that have strongly resisted transformation of the acquisition process may be more susceptible to change today than at any time in the recent past.”
Those efforts would also get a boost, many think, if Ashton Carter, a leading contender to replace Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, gets the job. As a former senior Pentagon official, he helped devise a program called “Better Buying Power,” which is designed to help the Pentagon get more for its money.
If Carter were to become defense secretary, “I am certain he would be very engaged, informed and supportive of both the internal Pentagon, congressional and industry pushes for improvements,” said Arnold Punaro, a retired Marine Corps major general who serves as chairman of the NDIA’s board.
The association has offered a series of concrete legislative proposals — with draft language — that would provide more authority to contracting and acquisitions officials and hold them accountable when programs go wrong.
Punaro said that even as defense programs fall into trouble, “you won’t find anybody who was either fired or got a letter of reprimand or didn’t get promoted. . . . No one is held accountable.”
Military leaders tack on all sorts of new requirements to programs that blow budgets and schedules, he said. “If they could have a nuclear-powered tank that could fly itself to the battlefield, they’d want one,” he said. “They’d have a 38-page requirement to buy a chocolate-chip cookie.”
The NDIA also proposes to more intimately involve the secretaries of the various service branches in the acquisitions process and better connect the people who create the requirements for programs with the people in charge of buying them.
Government officials also acknowledge they could be part of the problem. The massive bureaucracy and red tape have scared off large technology companies and have made it difficult for smaller firms that are driving innovation to break into the federal marketplace, they say.
The private sector — and not the Pentagon — largely drives innovation, Thornberry said during the Reagan forum, adding that “if we make it too hard, Google just says, ‘It’s just not worth messing with you people.’ ”
Hagel has pursued a Defense Innovation Initiative to help the U.S. maintain its technological superiority. As part of the program, Hagel has said, the Pentagon “will actively seek proposals from the private sector, including those firms, and from those firms and academic institutions outside DOD’s traditional orbit.” Even though he is resigning, the plan will continue, officials said.
One of the main themes that ran through the compendium of essays commissioned by McCain and Levin was the lack of training and resources for the acquisitions workforce. In his essay, Daniel Gordon, the former administrator for federal procurement policy, wrote that the size of the workforce was “slashed” after the Cold War.
Then spending on federal contracts more than doubled between 2000 and 2008, meaning that the “Army’s contracting personnel faced a 600 percent increase in workload since 1992,” Gordon wrote.
In the armed services, contracting is not always perceived as the sexiest job, or one that can get you promoted as fast as those fighting in war. And that makes the reform efforts all the more difficult.
Throughout the federal government, Gordon wrote, the acquisitions workforce work in “a demoralizing environment of sequestration, pay freezes and furloughs, and they often feel that their contributions are neither respected nor appreciated, including by Congress.”