May 6, 2015 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Budget and Spending

Reforming the defense acquisition process

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, Texas Republican, has done something well-nigh unthinkable on Capitol Hill: He has filed a bill to cut red tape. Mr. Thornberry’s goal is to make the military’s acquisition process more efficient, but his approach — while intuitive for most people — goes against the grain of “normal” Congressional problem-solving, which typically tries to increase efficiency by piling on even more regulation.

On March 23, Mr. Thornberry introduced H.R. 1597, “The Agile Acquisition to Retain Technological Edge Act,” to trim the massive amounts of bureaucracy the Pentagon now has to navigate in order to buy weapons.

It would streamline the Defense Department’s acquisition processes by: allowing military officials to operate more autonomously, reducing the number of reports they have to write for Congress, and making it easier to hire and train qualified people to work in acquisition offices. These practices, though commonplace in the private sector, are atypical of the federal bureaucracy and rare indeed within the confines of the Pentagon.

Congress has made efforts in the past to reform Defense’s acquisition processes, but too often they have wound up merely adding paperwork and leaving acquisition officials with even more hoops to jump through. Mr. Thornberry’s proposal recognizes this, stating that “the acquisition reform efforts of the last 50 years continue to founder because they fail to address the motivational and environmental factors in which they must be implemented.” He goes on to characterize the current acquisition process as “plodding.” And he’s right.

Mr. Thornberry’s reform proposal eschews the sluggish, business-as-usual process, in favor of a system that encourages the adoption of best business practices, strengthens the workforce, and gives Defense Department officials leeway to use taxpayer dollars more efficiently. The bill specifically seeks to eliminate a number of reporting requirements that serve little purpose beyond consuming acquisition officials’ time and attention while costing millions.

Though previous efforts have been unsuccessful, it is clear that something must be done to stop wasting taxpayers’ dollars. Mr. Thornberry reports that, “between 1996 and 2010, the Army expended approximately $1 billion to $3 billion annually on two dozen programs that were eventually canceled.” As The Wall Street Journal recently noted, military programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Littoral Combat Ship have grabbed headlines more for billion-dollar cost overruns than for the capabilities they provide. Mr. Thornberry’s bill aspires to actually address the culture of waste inside the government, rather than trying to throw out the system and start over.

This proposal is also a rarity in Washington in that it has received near-unanimous support from Democrats as well as Republicans, from the House as well as the Senate, and even among Defense Department leadership. In Capitol Hill’s polarized political environment, where the Senate has been among the least productive in America’s history and Congress finds it all but impossible merely to pass a budget, it is telling that Mr. Thornberry’s proposal is so well received.

Frank Kendell, the Pentagon’s chief acquisition officer, recently told Defense News, “I’m really encouraged by the cooperation I’m getting from both sides of the Hill. Both the House and Senate are working well with us [and] seem to be very open to hearing our ideas and getting our feedback.”

Too often, Congress looks for silver bullet solutions that appear revolutionary but only end up bogging the military down with more forms to fill out. Mr. Thornberry has opted for a refreshing, common sense approach to changing this culture of waste and bureaucracy while supporting America’s service members in the process. The executive and legislative branches must continue this cooperative, incremental approach to spending taxpayer dollars more wisely as they work to provide for the common defense.

 - Brian Slattery is a research associate in the Heritage Foundation’s Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy.

About the Author

Brian Slattery Policy Analyst, Defense and Security Studies
Center for National Defense

Originally appeared in The Washington Times