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Defense acquisitions are broken and no one cares

The Washington Post's Walter Pincus breathed a heavy sigh in print this week with a column that outlined the perfect absurdity of the military-industrial-congressional complex.

It compared the findings of President Reagan's blue ribbon panel with the results of an April report by the Defense Business Board, which were almost interchangeable.

Problem is, no one cares. Pincus' frustration comes through in every word:

What can be more boring than reading about yet another set of recommendations for fixing a system that over the past decade has seen the Defense Department flooded with funds. It’s been so flush that it could walk away from $50 billion worth of “weapons that either did not work or were overtaken by new requirements given the average 15-to-18 year development cycle,” according to the [recent] Punaro task force report.

And — yawn — the overruns are hardly over. This is in spite of the need to reduce defense spending. More yawn-inducing reality: The Government Accountability Office recently reported current major weapons systems will show a cost growth of $135 billion before they are fully integrated into the system.

Boring and frustrating. It was time to do something 26 years ago. The only major lasting memorial to the Packard Commission is its recommendation for an undersecretary of defense for acquisition. The Pentagon has had one since that time, but the problems remain.

“Today there is no rational system whereby the Executive Branch and the Congress reach coherent and enduring agreement on national military strategy, the forces to carry it out, and the funding that should be provided — in light of the overall economy and competing claims on national resources.”

Nope. Continues Pincus:
The Punaro Task Force proposed that requirements, acquisition and budgeting be merged with a common documentation throughout. It also recommended requirements be frozen, after cost, schedule and technical tradeoffs have been made. Industry is to be brought early into the process, and the current wall between military requirements and civilian-controlled acquisition should be removed. Service chiefs should be involved throughout the process.

Still awake? We all should be — and particularly Congress.

“Congress should work to recodify all federal statutes governing procurement into a single government-wide procurement statute ... aim[ed] not only at consolidation, but more importantly at simplification and consistency.”

That’s the Packard Commission from 26 years ago. It’s time to pay attention.

Very important stuff, but don't hold your breath. The public has been snoozing through decade upon decade of Pentagon waste; the last person to get a national profile tackling it was Missouri Sen. Harry S. Truman, who made the cover of Time. As a mass communications issue, audiences respond to headlines that say "Pentagon program busts budget" the way they might to "Water wet, scientists conclude," or "Sun likely to rise tomorrow, astronomers predict." Defense spending is a vital national issue, but after so many years of bad stories, the public is numb.

Congress has no incentive to "fix" it. Lawmakers accept millions of dollars in contributions from defense contractors -- which is perfectly legal -- and they're eager to protect factories, bases or shipyards in their districts -- which is their job. Vendors -- which are for-profit companies out to maximize their return for investors -- exploit this masterfully. Lockheed Martin Tweeted this week, for example, that for a time during F-22 production, the jet's components were made in 46 states. You've read here about the broad national profile of the F-35 Lightning II that continues today. When Huntington-Ingalls Industries rallies members of its "aircraft carrier industrial base," it brings in vendors from places such as Cleveland, to show lawmakers outside Virginia or coastal districts why they have an interest. And on and on.

The big defense contractors are filled with patriotic people who take pride in knowing that they're helping protect the United States, but the bottom line is giant corporations are giant corporations, and they act as such. Lockheed's goal is to make money. Should we really expect its leaders to speak up and say, "No, Mr. Secretary, we refuse to accept this enormous contract -- it's too risky  to develop the airplane at the same time as we're putting it into production." Should we expect the shipbuilder to say, "Y'know what, admiral, let me tell you up front, we really did a terrible job building this new amphibious transport -- we'll bear all the costs and inconvenience of putting it into spec to save you years of embarrassment, lots of rework for your sailors and millions of taxpayer dollars."

So if there is some hope for repairing the way the U.S. arms itself, it may have to come from within the Building -- though even that is a tall order. Still, today's generation of service chiefs and acquisitions leaders say they get it. At very least, they want a clean break; we've heard some of the Army's key weapons-buyers saying explicitly: The past is gone; give us a chance to do better. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert says "good enough" has got to be good enough. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz may have put it most memorably when he told an industry audience, "Don't blow smoke up my ass."

Unfortunately, although today's DoD may be through with the past, the past sure ain't through with it. The same generals and admirals who talk "discipline" and "appetite suppressants" must live with a $400 billion, behind-schedule F-35; a class of ships dependent on modular equipment that doesn't yet exist; tankers and bombers projected to go into production at the same time; and a lot more expensive inheritance.  If you could stop time, zero everything out, write all your regs from scratch and restart the clock, things might be different. But we are where we are.

The defense acquisitions world is the intersection of politics and capitalism, and it reflects the strengths and weaknesses of each. It saved thousands of lives with the Mine Resistant, Ambush-Protected vehicles, but it needed years and three agonizing attempts to get the Air Force a new fleet of tankers. If DoD officials stick to the buzzwords and commitments they've adopted today while staring down the barrel of reduced budget growth, the process could get better. Still, as long as human beings and their institutions remain imperfect, the Iron Triangle will too.

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