The Pentagon must focus more sharply on rapid fielding of equipment to ensure troops in the field are getting the equipment they need when they need it. Fixed price contracts should be used "whenever possible," and the Pentagon should hire more acquisition experts to better manage the military's programs.
Also, Missile Defense Agency programs should be governed by the Pentagon's standard acquisition laws and policies, setting out what would be an important shift from policies pursued during the Bush administration.
That was the essence of today's nomination hearing at which senators greeted Ash Carter, the Obama administration's pick to lead Defense Department acquisition. Jim Miller, nominated as principal deputy undersecretary for policy, and Alexander Vershbow, nominated as assistant secretary for international security affairs, also appeared before the committee. There were few noteworthy discussions regarding the two policy shop choices.
One of the only negative comments during the hearing came from Sen. John McCain, ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who questioned whether Carter possessed enough acquisition experience to do the job. McCain pointed to what he called "the lack of depth in your experience on acquisition matters" adding that he also understood that "experience is not a necessary precondition for success." McCain did not push the issue, which has attracted much support from industry sources who worry that Carter lacks knowledge of how to actually design and build a weapon.
For his part, Carter said he has 25 years of experience working with and for DoD, noting that in his prepared written answers that he has "participated in many panels and studies that have assessed the defense acquisition system going back to the 1980s and have written three books that address the subject." He also wrote that he has been "deeply involved in technical aspects of nuclear weapons and missile defense since the 1980s."
Carter offered some detail about fixed price contracts, telling Sen. McCain he thought they were best suited to later stages of a program. During the development phase of a program, a cost-plus contract may provide necessary flexibility.
He also voiced support for competitive prototyping "when judiciously applied." Regarding the persistent cost and schedule overruns that have wracked the Pentagon, Carter noted that programs are so difficult to get started that "the tendency is to settle on satisfying everyone's wishes" which results in "overpromising and under delivering," he said.
If the above sounds rather anodyne, one very experienced Hill watcher said all the hard issues had been worked out behind closed doors over the last few months during which Carter's nomination languished.