Army Chief of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told Senate lawmakers on Tuesday he could not defend DoD's recent acquisitions record, and vowed, as the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to help with reforms that will bring Pentagon schedules and spending under control. Senate Armed Services Committee members from both parties asked Dempsey what the department could do in answer to a litany of reports about out-of-control costs for the F-35 Lightning II, Army acquisitions, war zone logistics contracting, etc.
"The status quo is unacceptable," Dempsey said. "The system itself requires reform." He cited efforts already underway by DoD's top weapons-buyer, Ash Carter, but also seemed to get on board with the idea that the service chiefs should play a bigger role in managing acquisitions, as opposed to the current system where their main job is to set requirements. Dempsey becomes another top Washington voice calling for some kind of structural change in defense acquisitions, although it's unclear whether that will result in action at the same time defense advocates in Congress are trying to protect DoD's budget from major cutbacks.
Today, the uniformed leaders in the services develop requirements for the weapons or equipment they'd like, then turn much of the actual work of developing and buying them over to the civilian side -- the secretaries of the Army, Air Force and Navy. (Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is responsible for both the Navy and Marine Corps.) But as weapons programs take longer to develop, that gives service chiefs more opportunities to go back and ask for more -- and more, Dempsey said.
"The way requirements creep happens is when you have decade-long programs, which let guys like me" -- i.e., the chief of the Army - "to keep stuffing things through," he said.
That makes a program more complicated, which creates delays, which creates more openings for additional complications, and there you are: Soon a program needs to be "restructured," at a higher unit cost, and service officials lose their patience and cut it off. But not only does the Pentagon have to get better at managing acquisitions, reformers say, it has to learn to keep from starting programs to begin with. They take on a glacial inertia, protected by factions in the Building and on the Hill, and those that don't make it into production can end up wasting billions of dollars before they're finally cancelled.
Like Secretary Gates, F-35 program manager Vice Adm. David Venlet and other top DoD voices, Dempsey put some blame on the constant growth of the services' budgets since 2001. Top officials, program managers and many other people forgot how to prioritize, Dempsey said, because they almost always had the option to spend more money. Not only does DoD need to reconsider the structural process it uses to buy things, but the services need to un-learn that they can always try to spend their way out of problems, he said.
Will Dempsey's support for acquisitions reform translate into action or legislation? Probably not in the near term. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs has a powerful bully pulpit, so if Dempsey keeps agitating for a new process that will make a difference, but it's Secretary Panetta who holds most of the actual weapons-buying and program management authority in the department. He has told lawmakers generically he agrees that DoD needs to do a better job with acquisitions, but as yet hasn't spoken in detail about when -- or whether -- he or Congress might take serious action.