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Amos: Chiefs must focus more on acquisitions

The service chiefs must pay closer attention to their major acquisition projects, Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos said Thursday, because losing focus risks losing programs altogether when they go over budget or underperform. Amos has said before that he's become a senior de facto program manager on the F-35B Lightning II, which is the Marines' only way forward to continue flying fast jets off big deck amphibious ships.

The counter-example, as our own Bryant Jordan writes, is the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, which met its demise, in Amos' view, because the Marines' top leaders took their eyes off the ball:

"We turn around and go, 'I'm not worthy, I'm not qualified to manage this thing, I'm not even qualified to provide oversight, so you take this money, acquisitions community, and then you come back and tell me how I'm doing,' " he said. Amos claims the result is skyrocketing costs.

"We go off and focus on other things, like Iraq and Afghanistan," he said. "All of a sudden we turn back and [they say] 'well, we need another $1.3 billion.' And we say, 'How did that happen?'"

In the case of the now-cancelled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, he said, the Corps was about 25 years into the program and has seen costs climb from $4 million per vehicle originally to nearly $18 million each, he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates finally killed off the program with the backing of the Marine Corps, which is now planning to upgrade existing Amphibious Assault Vehicles as an alternative to the now-dead EFV.

This is a bit of revisionist history: Marine leaders followed the EFV closely and defended it up to and after its demise -- its boosters still say it can still be the vehicle of Chesty Puller's dreams, if DoD would only have the fortitude to press on with testing and development. In fact, if anything, the Corps may have focused too closely on the EFV and the amphibious doctrines it expressed; the Marines weren't ready to make concessions or compromises when lawmakers pointed out the EFV ignored the painful lessons of IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Amos' larger point, however, will probably earn him eager nods around the Pentagon, especially at the dawn of Austerity America. With the budgetary Sword of Damocles swinging ever nearer, none of the services can afford a single extra dollar or wasted day. As Amos himself pointed out, they've fallen a long way:

"Do you know how long it took to get the SR-71 Blackbird? From the time it was being drawn on graph paper to time it first flew was 18 months. Eighteen months. That was in the '60s. This is 2011."

Service chiefs have to be more engaged in acquisitions, to stay on top of how capabilities affect costs and be ready to make trade-offs as necessary, and to keep programs from being extended further and further out.

"I think the service chiefs need to reclaim ownership of these major programs," he said.

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