The urgency behind DOD's acquisition reform efforts

Better Buying Power 3.0 has a geostrategic urgency and emphasis on cybersecurity that was missing from earlier iterations.

Shutterstock image (by retrorocket): Cutting red tape.

(Image: Retrorocket / Shutterstock)

Changing the way the Defense Department buys weapons and IT has been a decades-long project, but the latest effort contains a strain of desperation.

A chorus of Pentagon officials, from Secretary Ashton Carter on down, has lamented that DOD risks losing its technological edge to potential adversaries such as Russia and China. That existential crisis is exacerbated by the new era of relatively tight and uncertain defense spending triggered by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

Frank Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is an engineer by training. He has been chipping away at the acquisition bureaucracy gradually. He has told reporters that the phrase “acquisition reform” bothers him because it implies an overhaul of the system rather than the incremental improvements he has been making.

And so the Pentagon’s top acquisition official has embarked on a third iteration of acquisition “improvement” (henceforth called “reform” in this article, perhaps to Kendall’s chagrin) through a program called Better Buying Power.

BBP 1.0, released in 2010, focused on improving business practices, while 2.0, which came in 2012, emphasized better decision-making. But 3.0 has a geostrategic urgency that was absent from previous versions.

A white paper on BBP 3.0 released by Kendall’s office notes a “remarkable leveling of the state of technology in the world, where commercial technologies with military applications such as advanced computing technologies, microelectronics, sophisticated sensors and many advanced materials are now widely available.” Protecting proprietary information has grown more difficult, “a fact that potential adversaries are doing their best to exploit,” the paper states.

The implication is that the fate of the United States as a world power is intertwined with the BBP odyssey.

Unlike its predecessors, the new guidance is preoccupied with cybersecurity. It calls for Defense Department CIO Terry Halvorsen and other top Pentagon officials to add a new section to DOD’s acquisition manual detailing program managers’ cybersecurity responsibilities.

BBP 3.0 is taking effect as Carter, who previously had Kendall’s job, settles in at the Pentagon’s helm. Acquisition reform advocates hope Carter’s technocratic touch will make now the time for meaningful change after years of half-measures.

Yin and yang

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has expressed similar optimism and has said it is partly because his Senate counterpart, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), supports his reform agenda. Thornberry has made defense acquisition reform a legislative priority and has worked closely with Kendall.

Thornberry added that he hopes the stars are aligned this time around. “We can’t waste this opportunity,” he said in announcing acquisition legislation in March.

Kendall and Thornberry are the yin and the yang of meaningful acquisition reform. If the Pentagon’s acquisition machine is to become more attuned to the Digital Age, both men will have to drive change.

Thornberry’s bill, on which Kendall’s office gave input, would remove obstacles to top military officials working on acquisition issues and require private-sector acquisition training for DOD personnel. It would also require DOD acquisition programs to come with written strategies that identify appropriate contract types and risk-mitigation tools.

Kendall largely welcomed the legislation but with at least two big caveats. He said he was wary of the over-involvement of service chiefs in the acquisition process. He was also skeptical of the bill’s “dual-track” career path for military officers involving both combat and acquisition experience.

Those are significant but perhaps surmountable differences in Kendall’s and Thornberry’s approaches to the issue.

Avoiding ‘Groundhog Day’

There is a certain cynicism among longtime observes about the ability of anyone to tame the defense acquisition bureaucracy. As Tom Sisti, a senior director and chief legislative counsel at SAP America and a former adviser on acquisition in the Senate, put it last year, “We seem to be in a kind of procurement ‘Groundhog Day’ where we recycle through a lot of the same recommendations.”

An inexpert government workforce and inadequate use of commercial technologies that were conceived outside the traditional defense base are chronic problems that have loomed over the latest round of acquisition reform. Those challenges will outlast the tenures of Kendall and Thornberry, but the men’s legacies will likely be judged on how well their policies tackled such systemic issues.

Regardless of whether BBP 3.0 or any new law has a lasting impact on the defense acquisition system, the future promises more work. Thornberry has said he has a database with more than 1,000 suggestions for acquisition reform that lawmakers will “continue to mine for years to come.”

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