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Senate To New DoD Team: Fix Acquisition

For those who watch the money, there was one persistent theme through the lightly-attended confirmation hearing for the new Pentagon leadership team: the money pool will shrink and the military must improve how well it develops and buys weapons.

"These [acquisition] problems have reached crisis proportions," noted the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.). He also said at the beginning of the hearing that the country "can't afford these kinds of inefficiencies."

The Thursday hearings featured four nominees: Bill Lynn, for deputy defense secretary; Robert Hale for the all-important comptroller and chief financial officer; Michèle Flournoy for undersecretary of defense for policy; and Jeh Charles Johnson for general counsel.

The nominees made clear to the committee that the upcoming Quadrennial Defense Review will be the primary means of deciding which programs live and die, and just how the Pentagon should fix the acquisition system. Levin also said that he thought fixing the requirements process would be key, in particular killing the tradition that almost any new requirement is a good requirement if a service wants it. Under the new leadership, the Pentagon wants to approve added requirements only at "the highest levels."

There was also concern about the old revolving door. The refreshingly candid Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) offered the only real criticism of the nominees, pointing to deputy defense secretary Bill Lynn. "You went directly from the Pentagon to a defense contractor and you are coming back to the Pentagon from one of the largest defense contractors. This is troubling to a lot of people who are looking at this situation," she said.

Lynn, sounding just a teeny bit offended, answered McCaskill, saying he had always followed the government's ethics guidelines in his dealings with both industry and government. "Senator, I certainly believe we have to maintain the highest ethical standards," he said, and promised her he would be as transparent in his dealings as possible.

It should be noted that the committee chairman said nothing about Lynn's links to industry. Levin did promise to move the nominations ahead as expeditiously as possible, noting that the committee still needed to receive some documents.

Among the structural changes that the new leadership touted is a "move away" from the use of supplemental defense spending bills. Hale and Lynn both pledged their best efforts at this, but Hale wisely noted it might take some time to achieve. I think they may curb the Bush administration's practice of effectively having two defense budgets -- one implemented through the regular annual process and the other through the supplemental. Ridding us of this pox sounds good but there are going to be emergencies that require unanticipated spending and Congress will exercise its constitutional right to decide how that money is spent and maybe add a bit from time to time.

Here's a roundup of others topics and programs covered during the hearing.

Missile Defense

The range of programs overseen by the Missile Defense Agency may well see important changes in how they are run and tested. Lynn said "missile defense should be treated like all defense programs." He also said they need to "be cost effective. Finally, we need to follow a strong test regime so we know they will be able to do what we expect them to do." He later told Sen. Levin, who asked specifically whether MDA should be subject to the usual processes for management, testing and funding, that "any exception [to the regular processes] should be rare and fully justified." While all that could cover a range of sins, it certainly strikes a very different tone from what we usually heard from most Bush administration.

Fighter Programs

The balance between the F-22 and F-35 will be a primary focus of the new team at the Pentagon. "If confirmed, I would expect this to be a key issue for the early strategy and program-budget reviews that the Department will conduct over the next few months," Lynn said in his written responses to committee questions.

Sea Forces

Sen. Jim Webb, (D-Va.), the former SecNav who has taken up the Navy cause from former Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), hammered away at the navy's decision to port a carrier in Mayport, Fla., effectively taking a carrier away from the Norfolk area. Hitting the top end of the cost estimates for Mayport to handle a nuclear carrier, Webb said "they want to take $1 billion" for the Florida port while the Navy faces $4.6 billion in unfunded requirements and has "empty" air squadrons. Lynn, wisely, committed to reviewing the Navy's decision.

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