Thornberry wants another take on Pentagon acquisition reform

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced an acquisition reform bill that focuses on protecting companies’ intellectual property rights when they work with the Defense Department.

Mac Thornberry

The Acquisition Agility Act, from the Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) looks to help the armed services speed technology to the field.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has for the second year running introduced a standalone acquisition reform bill in the hopes of shaping Congress's annual defense policy legislation.

Themes of this year's Thornberry bill, the Acquisition Agility Act, include encouraging experimentation and prototyping of technology; requiring systems to be built with open architecture in order to encourage competition; and clarifying the intellectual property rights of companies working with the Defense Department.

Privately funded components inside a larger platform are the IP of the developer, whereas components that are jointly funded are "subject to negotiation between the government and the developer," a summary of the bill states. Retention of IP has been a sticking point in the Pentagon's past efforts to agree to partnerships with private firms. 

Asked about the bill's IP provisions at a March 15 Brookings Institution event, Thornberry said, "I have become concerned that many companies are…walking away from doing business with the Department of Defense," especially in the case of tech firms. "We can't afford that."

"Hopefully a little clarity, especially about the intellectual property for these components, will bring more people into the business, help us upgrade faster, and…get better technology into the hands of the war-fighters faster," added Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

The bill would give the military services new authorities to experiment and prototype in order to push technologies to a full stage of maturity, Thornberry wrote in a memo to HASC members. He argued that the bill would offer necessary flexibility in funding and enable successful prototypes to be "fast-tracked" into programs of record.

At the Brookings event, Thornberry said his push to reform the acquisition system is "not primarily about saving money; it is primarily about having a system that is agile enough to meet the threats the country is facing."

Thornberry's bill would put pressure on some firms' business models, according to Andrew Hunter, a former DOD acquisition official.

"Prime contractors whose business models focus their value proposition on the tight integration of sophisticated subsystems and the development of cutting-edge technologies will likely have to modify their business approach substantially if this bill is adopted," wrote Hunter, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The bill comes as Congress considers proposals to reform the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the landmark 1986 law that governs the military's chain of command.

The full committee markup for the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act is scheduled for April 27, according to Thornberry's memo.

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