The House Armed Services Committee chairman has fired the opening shot in the upcoming defense policy battle, proposing sweeping changes to the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition and intellectual property rights rules guaranteed to make the Pentagon squirm.
Rep. Mac Thornberry’s (R-Texas) proposal effectively upends the current military procurement process by splitting weapons systems into “platforms” – for instance, a fighter jet, or a submarine – and “components,” such as that jet’s or submarine’s navigation system, sensors, or telecommunication devices. The services would have latitude to upgrade anything that counts as a “component” without having to beg Congress for special permission.
The idea, Thornberry said, is to make sure that fighters in the field can more quickly get their hands on the latest technology, and when it comes time to make new purchase orders, help avoid cost-overruns and scheduling delays because much of the new system’s technology will have already been field-tested.
Doing that, though, means forcing the top Pentagon bureaucrats to set earlier cost and timeline targets for new systems, while at the same time, ceding oversight authority and accountability for more programs to individual branches of the military – even for joint programs. Meanwhile in Congress, lawmakers would have to get comfortable with the services having more leeway to fund technology upgrades without congressional permission.
“There will be resistance,” Thornberry said on Tuesday, describing his plan. “But if there’s not some sort of opposition, you’re not changing very much.”
Acquisition reform has been a central obsession of Congress’ Armed Services committees, and in theory, the Defense Department is on board with the idea of reforming the system. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said the DOD would propose its own systematic reforms within weeks, according to a report in Defense News. Carter is scheduled to testify on Capitol Hill this Thursday.
But lawmakers and administration officials have not always seen eye-to-eye about what weapons priorities are worth pursuing – and where the DOD could stand to cut costs without losing its edge in the field.
Thornberry was careful to tell committee members that his draft is a starting point for debate.
But his proposal will nonetheless set the stage for the debate over acquisition reform in the next several months, as lawmakers tackle the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill — behemoth legislation that goes well beyond the scope of weapons system procurement.
The defense policy process will also be influenced by an ongoing, parallel fight over defense appropriations. Thornberry and other Republicans have said they intend to seek an additional $18 billion to cover what they see as a shortfall in next year’s budget. Otherwise, they say, they cannot cover the costs of the programs they were planning for when lawmakers struck a two-year budget deal last year, and accommodate Obama’s request to commit more money to new ventures, such as quadrupling funding for defenses in Europe.
Thornberry’s proposal is also light, by design, on the details of just how programs would be labeled. But if a deal can be crafted, the Texas Republican is hopeful it can rid the system of bureaucracy that’s been weighing down the military’s ability to more nimbly respond to the demands of war.
“It’s not primarily about saving a buck or two, it’s about a system that is not keeping up with the way the world is changing,” Thornberry said. “Nobody’s smart enough to have all the answers to some of these issues we’re talking about.”
Late last year, lawmakers launched a sweeping review process of Pentagon inefficiencies, focusing on overlapping mandates, interservice rivalries, and how new missions – like cyber and space technologies that didn’t exist the last time lawmakers and the Pentagon embarked on such a review – should fit into the country’s defense apparatus.
Thornberry’s proposals to change the way the DOD commissions, upgrades and purchases cutting-edge weapons systems fit into this climate of change.
Among the other proposals in his bill is a requirement that all weapons systems be built using standard, open architecture that will make it easier to swap component parts out with upgrades, and competition between private sector developers to field the best – and most affordable – products.
As part of encouraging more companies to bid on defense projects, Thornberry also proposed giving private contractors more assurances about their intellectual property rights, and the ability to negotiate with the government over IP ownership of jointly-funded weapons platforms or component parts at the outset of their contract.