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Experts Tout Cost as Requirement Fix

Senators and various experts reminded us all on Tuesday just how well the Pentagon has been doing at the job of designing and buying weapons over the last decade. But several acquisition experts also presented one idea to the Senate Armed Services Committee that might help rein in costs over the long run and force the services to exercise more discipline when they design new weapons systems: make cost a requirement.

GAO’s Michael Sullivan repeated what the auditors have been saying for some time now: DoD acquisition has completely gone off the rails. Last year, GAO found that the costs of the 95 major weapons in DOD’s portfolio have risen by $295 billon and the average delivery delay was 21 months. And, to be fair, Sen. Carl Levin made this a center point of his opening statement.

It's worth reading Sullivan’s prepared statement to get an idea of how bad things have gotten in the weapons buying world. [You can read all the prepared statements here.] He says the services have too much power and they, not DOD, dictate what to buy, “using fragmented decision-making processes.” I’m pretty sure that's GAO speak for: everybody kind of does whatever the hell they want without any adult supervision.

Sullivan was flanked by three other experts: Jack Gansler, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics; Paul Kaminski, also former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics; Pete Adolph, chairman of the Defense Science Board's task force on developmental test and evaluation.

The experts -- including Sullivan -- came up with one solution that might really make a difference in the long run but is likely to be resisted at all costs by the services: make cost a requirement. Interestingly, the question that prompted this discussion came from Sen. Susan Collins , Republican from Maine.

Gansler made the most detailed argument in favor, saying it should be included as a key performance parameter (KPP). He said the services resist doing this, arguing that budgetary issues should not cloud their sparkling vision of a perfect weapon system. But the services conveniently ignore the fact that budgets determine how many weapons can be bought, and the number of weapons you can field is a mighty important part of the requirements process. "What they neglect is that numbers are a military requirement... and numbers really matter as a military requirement," Gansler said. Sullivan supported the idea of making cost a KPP.

The experts also said that the whole requirements process is pretty close to a sham. Time and again you hear program managers across the services justify their costly programs by saying it fills a Joint Capabilities and Integration Development System identified “need.” As Sullivan points out, that’s not a real high bar, since JCIDS, "validates almost all of the capability proposals that are submitted." GAO found that 70 percent of new "capability proposals" came from the services with little or no input from either combatant commanders, the warfighting end users, or the joint community.

This line in Sullivan's testimony really takes the cake: “The vast majority of capability proposals that enter the JCIDS process are validated or approved without accounting for the resources or technologies that will be needed to acquire the desired capabilities.” So, basically JCIDS gives the go ahead on any weapons program without even considering whether it’s within the realm of “doable” from either a technology or money perspective. Is it really too much to ask that DOD’s weapons oversight actually do oversight?

Sullivan also criticizes DoD's continuation of the Cold War practice of divvying up money equally among the services, “even though DoD’s strategic environment and warfighting needs have changed dramatically in recent years." DoD’s "capabilities approach" to weapons development is pretty much useless since the folks who manage the nine capabilities areas - such as command and control, battlespace awareness, logistics – have zero control over resources.

Sullivan says some of the recent acquisition policy changes DoD put in place, such as early prototype requirements, completing certain engineering tasks before beginning development, early milestone reviews, are showing promise in new-start programs, such as JLTV. He said the same policies should be extended to weapons already under development. Have a look also

Sullivan and the other experts also have hopes for some of the SASC’s new proposals, including demands for early stage systems engineering tests and efforts to put some termination teeth behind the Nunn-McCurdy cost breaches, so that they actually mean something.

Sullivan says DoD plans to spend more than $357 billion over the next five years on new weapons. Hopefully the Obama administration will extend to the Pentagon some of that enthusiasm for oversight and regulation they've shown toward the banking industry.

Colin Clark contributed to this story.

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