Battle in Afghanistan pits daily operations against congressional regulations

The struggle between meeting wartime needs and fostering transformation doesn't always have to hinder progress if the government can find a sweet spot in policy.

The long and arduous mission in Afghanistan is testing the Defense Department’s ability to balance the need for transformation in the areas of acquisition and logistics with the demands of managing daily operations, according to a senior DOD official.

DOD leaders recognize the need to improve its policies and processes, but they also have immediate concerns with ensuring that the services have the equipment they need when they need it, according to Ashton Carter, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics.

Those urgent needs can put DOD officials at odds with Congress and other oversight organizations who are watching how every dollar is spent. For example, a good acquisition strategy requires defining the requirements up front. But in the case of a rapid acquisition, it’s not always possible to know all the requirements.

“We face a number of ‘catch-22s’ in rapidly responding to urgent needs on the ground,” said Carter, speaking at a forum held by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on April 2.


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It’s a logistical tug of war, to be sure. But sometimes, at the sweet spot of policy, the regulatory and procedural issues and the needs in the theater can be worked out quickly, like in the case of new mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles (MRAPs), which are integral to ground operations.

“We selected the source in July 2009, and the first [vehicles] arrived in September,” said Carter, who added that 1,000 MRAPs have been fielded so far with 5,000 on the way.

Despite the scrutiny from Congress, Carter said DOD has been able to push past the previous maximum production of 500 vehicles per month to 1,000. Initially it may have been more than needed, but it proved to be a smart move now that Iraq and Afghanistan are now absorbing 1,000 MRAPs every month.

According to Carter, DOD officials always have to deal with questions from Congress and other regulatory bodies that can be a catch-22 for rapid acquisition. “Why don’t we wait for something better? Does it fit in the long-range scheme?”

In the case of the MRAPs, rapid deployment of the vehicles hinged on breaking with institutional habit.

“It’s better to have an MRAP without a solider than a soldier without an MRAP. So it was kind of, ‘We’ll figure it out later, let’s just get these to the soldiers now,’” Carter said, noting the move as an example of moving ahead past traditional regulations.

While at first glance that may seem to be flouting Congressional mandates to reign in spending, one source, speaking on background, said federal officials tend to understand the urgent needs that arise from fighting dual wars.

“If it’s something that is direly needed, Congress will help,” the source said.

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