Congress

HASC tackles acquisition bureaucracy

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)

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee

It's a new year for Congress, but the same old challenges to reforming the defense acquisition system loom: weeding out layers of bureaucracy in decision-making, strengthening the acquisition workforce and quickening the pace at which technology is fielded.

"What I'm most interested in is how we can more empower the individuals at the Pentagon to make those decisions with fewer layers of bureaucracy," said Rep Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, at a Jan. 7 hearing. Smith went on to describe a vicious cycle in which program managers proliferate with the length of an acquisition program.

Led by Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), lawmakers took a big stab at reforming the acquisition system via the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which became law in November 2015.

The law tackles all three of those enduring challenges to acquisition reform. It requires the Defense secretary to find acquisition methods that circumvent the traditional system, commissions an independent study of the Defense Department's acquisition workforce and asks DOD officials to develop a middle tier of acquisition programs in the next two to five years.

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon's top acquisition official, has acknowledged that bolstering the acquisition workforce is the key to reforming the system, but he has called legislation a limited tool for ushering in reform.

"There is very little that you can do from the point of view of legislation that will make somebody a better engineer or a better program manager or a better contracting person," Kendall said last April.

As detailed as the 2016 NDAA is on acquisition issues, there could be still more to come. Thornberry has said his efforts are an iterative process, and improving how DOD officials spend tens of billions of dollars on IT and weapons annually won't happen in one fell swoop. He is therefore looking to the fiscal 2017 NDAA to build on momentum in acquisition reform.

Getting Pentagon officials to embrace more risk in acquisition programs through experimentation could be the next wave of legislative efforts. The notion that Silicon Valley firms succeed because they are allowed to fail came up in the hearing.

"We've got to allow people to make mistakes," said Thornberry, who chairs the committee. "One way to help with that is to be able to experiment and prototype so you that you see if something is going to work before you buy a bunch of them."

Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, principal military deputy in the Army's acquisition office, said the challenge lies in balancing risk and reward for military acquisition executives.

"Unless that technology is mature enough to plug in, we're not willing to make the investment," he said during the hearing, adding that it is hard to justify investments in technologies that aren't shoo-ins for success.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.


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