Ash Carter delivered his best line during his appearance at the Council on Foreign Relations Monday night when asked if he thought there might be another Last Supper, a moniker that defense aficionados know refers to the famous 1993 dinner where then-Defense Secretary Bill Perry made clear industry consolidation was needed in the wake of the Cold War.
"How many times can you bill something as the Last Supper?" Carter, the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, asked to appreciative laughter from the audience of about 400. Other than that, the biggest news may have come from Carter's comments about the long-troubled acquisition system. "There are way too many programs that are not performing as they should," Carter said, adding that he was combing through programs to better understand which programs suffer problems and find ways to fix them.
He said there is "just no substitute" for "disciplined program review" and for good people who ensure excellent program execution. But there are systemic problems to overcome such as the fact that the acquisition system is "not well suited" to improving acquisition and "we have to do better."
One tool that Congress has long relied on in finding and fixing struggling programs is the law known as Nunn-McCurdy. It requires the Pentagon to notify Congress when cost growth on a major acquisition program reaches 15 percent. If the cost growth hits 25 percent, Nunn-McCurdy requires the Pentagon to justify continuing the program based on three main criteria: its importance to U.S. national security; the lack of a viable alternative; and evidence that the problems that led to the cost growth are under control.
Carter said that Nunn-McCurdy is "effective because people are terrified of it." But he also said that by the time a program triggers Nunn-McCurdy a program is already in deep trouble and he would prefer to know a program is encountering problems long before that. Also, in a comment that drew puzzled reaction from several long-time observers of defense acquisition, he said that Nunn-McCurdy has "a very high false alarm rate" such as when a program triggers a notification because unit costs climb in the wake of a decision to buy fewer systems.
Carter noted that he has some good friends as he pursues the goal of improving defense acquisition: "The president has taken an interest in my area which is good news if you are an undersecretary."