Defense acquisition: Lost in the fog of war?

Tight budgets and evolving requirements leave DOD acquisition uncertain

The military has always enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, but it is not immune from the economic uncertainties that face the government and country. With the federal budget in a state of flux, Defense Department officials and others are asking some tough questions about the future of contracting at DOD.

Many of the questions center on how and what DOD must buy to do its job — and how to pay for it.

DOD officials are already looking for $100 billion in savings and efficiencies in the next five years, and major programs and systems are on the chopping block. But the rapidly changing nature of warfare complicates decisions about what to cut.

The way DOD spends its money has been evolving for some time, and now more than 60 percent of acquisition costs go to services rather than more traditional expenditures, such as weapons, said Jacques Gansler, former undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics and now a professor at the University of Maryland. He spoke as part of a panel of experts convened by Compusearch last month to discuss the future of government acquisition.

That percentage includes increased spending on IT, another area that is undergoing radical reform. Tanks and major weapons programs are largely on their way out. High technology and mobile, tactical communications are in. They aren’t cheap, though, and they require research and development that must compete for dwindling funds.

Adversaries are becoming smarter, faster and more agile, and a massive DOD is struggling to change course and adapt to the new terrain with fewer resources. Specifically, DOD can expect only 1 percent annual growth in its budget — or even less.

“In the future, we’re going to look back at the good old days when 1 percent growth was possible,” said Elliott Branch, executive director of acquisition and logistics management at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and another participant in the panel discussion in December.

Some experts say DOD must emulate the rest of the United States in these lean times and narrow its priorities.

“We need to focus on one requirement: What do we really need to buy?” said panel member Deidre Lee, former director of procurement and acquisition policy at DOD and now executive director of compliance at Fluor. “Otherwise, we’re going to be buying a whole bunch of the wrong things really quick.”

Part of that refocusing on truly critical requirements could mean taking a step back to see the bigger picture, Branch said.

“We have in DOD a sense of urgency in what we buy — and well we should, in some cases,” he said. “But on the other hand, we have 13 times the tonnage of the next biggest Navy, and they’re our friends. We have air power unequaled. My question is what drives the urgency surrounding [a program such as the costly, long-running F-35 Joint Strike Fighter] when we have a chance to step back. We are addicted to speed, to rapid deployment, instead of getting out the right technologies.”

Another major issue in defense spending is the contracting process. Some officials argue that it could be improved by better practices, rules and procedures.

“There is constant tension between oversight and contracting,” said Francis Spampinato, director of acquisition and contracting at the Federal Aviation Administration. “There has to be oversight, but we have to let people do their jobs, and we have to be realistic with the oversight process.”

Spampinato added that contracting officers need to be able to use their discretion, and he called for hiring and training specialists in IT contracting so they can better understand the nuances.

Branch countered that more oversight is necessary but not in its existing form. “We need more mentorship and less oversight,” he said. “I’m not sure that’s happening.”

In addition, the deployment of technology and weapons must be improved, the panelists said. Although getting critical tools to troops on the ground is absolutely necessary, it must be done judiciously, they agreed.

In fact, the shrinking coffers could paradoxically be a boon for defense acquisition.

“Money is the enemy of innovation,” Branch said. “We can achieve the goals of the organization while protecting the interests of the taxpayer. The two are not mutually exclusive.”

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.

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Reader comments

Sat, Feb 5, 2011 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

One of the biggest obstacles to streamlining DoD is Congress. Weapons systems, regardless of capability or utility, are job creators that members of Congress are simply not willing to cut. Sec. Gates is being undermined in efforts to cut redundancy and red tape by Congressional leaders who do not have the courage and are self-interested to make a shared sacrifice for the benefit of the nation. DoD further needs to focus on capabilities and conflicts of the future, and stop preparing for the last war. Until Congress gets on board and is part of the solution, we can expect more empty rhetoric and more programs that are behind schedule, over budget, and deliver little capability.

Sat, Jan 15, 2011

I think you’ve made a couple of excellent points. As an officer and a member of the Army’s Acquisition Corps, I believe Secretary Gates has made some tough, but wise choices by cutting billions of dollars in defense spending. While this may be an unpopular view, especially coming from an active duty acquisition officer during a time of war, we need to face reality and become better stewards of the tax-payer’s hard earned money.
The first point I’d like to address encompasses the requirements. If we don’t get it right up front in the requirements process, it is possible that the services may end up procuring the “wrong things.” Without the proper research to ensure we are filling a real capability gap, we are truly destined to fail. Wasting billions of dollars on a weapon system only to find out that we currently have weapon systems that already have that particular capability is senseless. Along the same lines, if the concept had validity at the start of the project, but has no use or is obsolete by the time it is ready for production, then we’ve done everyone a disservice.
Secondly, you’re right on point by saying that we need to get out the right technologies. Even if we believe that we’ve gotten the requirements right, we need to ensure that the test and evaluation is rigorous and operationally realistic to ensure we have the right technologies. What I’m really referring to is military utility. On a recent test that I was associated with, a couple of the weapon systems met most of the requirements. But by the end of the test, and to the surprise of many, those systems had little military utility. What good is a sensor if the Soldiers can’t use it to locate and identify an armored vehicle and the stand-off range is within the enemy’s firing range? Or how do we expect Soldiers to carry a piece of equipment that adds 30 or 40 pounds on top of all the other gear that they are already carrying? To that end, it is essential that systems meet sufficient military utility before there is a determination for procurement.
The days of endless spending are gone, and I support Secretary Gates’ efforts to trim defense spending. His efforts are saving tax-payer dollars and ensuring that we do not procure the “wrong things.” In the long run, I believe we are all better off with a bit of course correction and much needed cost cutting measures.
The views expressed above are my own and do not reflect the views of any Army organization. MAJ C.R.M

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 Jethro Bodine

The real problem is that each of the services insists on having its own systems acquisition arms. About a dozen years ago Congress wanted to create a single DoD C4ISR systems acquisition agency for all four services. The services set up an organization to work to develop interoperable joint systems but did not staff it and did not fund it. A couple of election cycles later Congress lost interest and the organization was quietly disbanded. Within the services, each base often does its own thing because each base can. By allowing each organization, base, post, station, etc., to do what it wants is exceedingly expensive and wasteful and places all IT/C4ISR systems at risk of compromise.

Wed, Jan 12, 2011 Panamablaine Tyndall, AFB, Florida

I am a 34 year Navy Vet, and have been employed for the last 8 years 0n Tyndall AFb. We maintain thwe entire base as a civilian contractor. I can honestly say we provide better and more efficient service than the military DOD did using Civil Service people, and probably as good of service as if it was being provided by Active Military. So to that degree the hiring of civilian contractors that are held to the standards we are, and still need to make a profit for the company is the way to go. However the companies MUST be held to TOP QUALITY SERVICE. The place I see the DOD can save without a doubt over 500 million dollars per year is in the renovation of offices and landscaping of buildings at the whim of the new commands. Every two to three years when various commands change commanders, they all renovate the offices and buildings. The previous commander just renovated, but it doesn't meet the likes of the new commander. AN immediate FREEZ on all renovations due to change of commands MUST be implemented. I speak from personnal experience of watching this kind of waste for the last 8 years. DRMO is FULL of all kinds of brand new equipment and office furnishings. Not to mention perfectly functional computers, laptops, and flat screen monitors. Sure one office consisting of three desks, three computers, and monitors, plus the dividers or partitions may not seem like much on an individual basis. But it probably totals 15 to 20 thousand dollars, you have to take into effect the labor cost of renovation at approx $50 per hour for 50 man hours. That multiplied by the hundreds of thousands of offices throughout the DOD will easily total a half billion dollars or more per year. So lets see the DOD get a handle on that single piece of WASTE, and leave the weapons alone. The men and women putting their lives on the line to allow these people to sit in Washington deserve it. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE !!!!

Wed, Jan 12, 2011

Well, given that the US spends 46.5 percent (2009) of all GLOBAL military expenditures, one could argue that maybe, perhaps, there could be a few things we don't really need.

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