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Odierno: Chiefs, Not Civilians, Should Play Bigger Role in Weapon Buys

The U.S. Army’s top officer said service chiefs rather than civilians should play a bigger role in deciding what kinds of weapons the military buys.

Army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno this week called on lawmakers to consider the move while debating ways to reform the Defense Department’s acquisition process.

“There’s a message that gets sent throughout the acquisition force that they don't work for the uniformed military, they work for the civilians,” he said on Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “That’s a dangerous message because I think our experience in support of the process is very important.”

He added, “We should play a bigger role in approving where we’re going, milestones, how the requirements meet with what's being done by the acquisition. I think an oversight by the military would be more important and could add some potential positive energy towards building better acquisition programs.”

While the service’s top civilian, Army Secretary John McHugh, offered mild support for the idea, saying it “makes some sense,” it’s unclear whether lawmakers would back the proposal. The Army, arguably more than any other service, has a long and troubled history of procurement efforts gone awry.

A government report released in 2011 concluded that since 1996, the Army spent more than $1 billion annually on programs that were ultimately canceled -- and that since 2004, the figure climbed to between $3.3 billion and $3.8 billion a year.

While the Army has since implemented a slew of the report’s recommendations, it continues to spend billions of dollars on systems that never enter production. In recent years, for example, the service canceled the Ground Combat Vehicle, or GCV, designed to replace a portion of the fleet of Bradley fighting vehicles, and the Armed Aerial Scout, meant to replace the OH-58 Kiowa helicopter.

During the hearing, McHugh himself called the service’s track record on acquisition programs “too often a tale of failure -- too many underperforming or canceled programs, too few successful fieldings of development designs and far too many taxpayer dollars wasted,” he said. “We know this and we will do better.”

When he was asked for his thoughts about Odierno’s proposal, McHugh said, “As I look across the history of our acquisition programs, clearly many things have happened negatively on some of those. I don’t want to ascribe it all to a service chief not having enough reach and visibility at the latter points of the process. But to me, the chief’s proposal makes some sense.”

He added, “At the end of the day, you need to ensure the Title 10 authorities of civilian command, but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.”

Sen. Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island and the ranking member of the committee, said the idea will be debated, but clearly favored the existing separation between requirements and testing officials. “One hopes that … the people giving the tests are not the people who are sort of making up the requirements," he said.

--Brendan McGarry can be reached at brendan.mcgarry@military.com

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