Thornberry's defense acquisition bill: 'not enough ... but it's a start'

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, who championed defense acquisition reform before it was cool, said he has compiled more than 1,000 suggested changes.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) at a July 2012 joint hearing of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Committee for Veterans Affairs (DOD Photo: Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo)

House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry, who championed defense acquisition reform before it was cool, describes his bill as a first step.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry will unveil a bill this week that he described as the opening salvo of a long-term legislative project to reform the troubled defense acquisition system.

The Texas Republican's measure will focus on improving four categories of defense acquisition: training Defense Department personnel, requiring up-front strategies for acquisition programs, consolidating the Pentagon's chain of command for acquisition, and eliminating unnecessary reporting requirements.

The bill is "not enough, it doesn't try to be enough, but it's a start," Thornberry said in a March 23 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Thornberry's legislation is the output of his many months studying the acquisition system, including a hearing he held on the subject after assuming the Armed Services chairmanship in January. He said he has compiled more than 1,000 suggestions for reforming the acquisition system in "a database that we can continue to mine for years to come."

Thornberry indicated he intends to fold his legislation into the fiscal 2016 defense authorization bill that his committee will mark up April 29.

The bill would remove obstacles to top military officials working on acquisition issues and require private-sector acquisition training for DOD personnel, Thornberry said. "To be the world's fastest incorporator of commercial technology, there has to be a lot of interaction between industry and government."

The measure also would require DOD acquisition programs to come with written strategies that identify appropriate contract types and risk mitigation tools. The legislation would simplify the Pentagon's acquisition decision process by converting some steps in the process from "legal certifications" to mere decisions, he said.

The bill would scrap "dozens" of reporting requirements for acquisition programs. "Over and over again, I hear that program managers…are forced to manage the process rather than manage the program," Thornberry said.

The bill comes as the Pentagon's top acquisition official prepares his own policy guidance. Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, could announce the final version of "Better Buying Power 3.0" early next month, according to a Kendall spokesperson. BBP 3.0 focuses on getting technology into soldiers' hands more quickly, and has been cast by Pentagon officials as a means of halting the erosion of America's technological advantage over China and Russia.

In his March 23 speech, Thornberry blamed that erosion on lumbering bureaucracy and "our broken budget process."

He said he has found common cause with fellow acquisition wonks Kendall and new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who formerly held Kendall's position. High-level attention to the issue at DOD and Thornberry's confidence about support from colleagues in the Senate mean the stars are aligned for meaningful acquisition reform, the Texas Republican predicted. "We can't waste this opportunity," he said.

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