Panel: DoD’s Industrial-Age Acquisition Process Erodes Technological Advantage
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — A congressionally created commission ordered to find ways to reform and streamline the defense acquisition process has determined that the Pentagon is attempting to buy its weapon systems through an industrial-age process while U.S. industry, and peer adversaries, are operating in the digital age.
The slow, complex and confusing government system deters many high-tech companies from doing business with the department, drives other innovative firms away and has resulted in an erosion of America’s historic technological advantage, commission members told the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) May 17.
“We are at a critical inflection point,” said Diedre Lee, chair of the 809 Panel, named for the section of the 2016 defense authorization bill that created it.
“The geo-strategic challenges we are facing are not lessening. To maintain our technological advantage, we need an organization that is able to look beyond how it’s always been done to how it can be done. It must be agile enough to respond to rapidly developing threats, and fast enough to deliver developing capabilities to match emerging threats,” said Lee, former director of Defense Procurement and Acquisition Policy, in summarizing the commission’s interim report.
HASC chairman Max Thornberry praised the report, saying his “favorite sentence,” was, “The way the Department of Defense [DoD] buys what it need to equip its warfighters is from another era.”
“None of us can afford to have that situation continue, because the era we’re in is dangerous and is not stopping to wait on us,” Thornberry said.
Noting that others have attempted acquisition reform, Lee said, “in order to avoid working around the edge of the existing system, we have charged ourselves to be bold, yet actionable.” She said what the commission would do differently than past reform efforts was “the level of detail” it will provide. “We’re going to give you markup-ready recommendations … data-driven recommendations for bold actions.”
But because the commission got a late start — due to delays by the Pentagon — Lee asked for an extension of its two-year charter to January 2019.
“We want to work with you, to take advantage of the gathering of expertise” in the commission members, Thornberry said. But, he added, “we feel the need to push.”
The chairman told Lee that everything she had said “is consistent with, and I think supportive of, the emphasis that this committee has put on acquisition reform over the last two years. … We made some changes, but no one thinks we have done enough.”
Thornberry announced that he would introduce legislation to make “some additional changes” that would give members a month before they would mark up the 2018 defense authorization to make suggestions, he said.
Commission member William LaPlante, a former Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, said the panel has a sense of urgency because “our technology superiority has been eroding over the last decade. … While we’re been doing as much as we can in the traditional way, the industrial way,” by studying analysis of alternatives for years, “our peer adversaries don’t seem to be doing that. They’re not studying things, they’re fielding things.
“Our ability to deliver things to the warfighters, without work arounds such as the MRAPs, is worse than it’s ever been,” LaPlante said, referring to the mine-resistant, ambush-protective vehicles rushed to Iraq and Afghanistan to counter the improvised explosive devices.
Charlie Williams, former director of the contract management agency, said keeping pace with the rapid changes in technology, “requires a significant amount of collaboration across industry and DoD. Unfortunately, the trust factor needed to do that doesn’t exist today.” That has resulted in “a risk-adverse system” that takes too long to field new technology, he said.
Retired Vice Adm. Joseph Dyer recalled an experience after he retired as commander of Naval Air Systems Command he became an executive at iRobot Corp, an early leader in developing unmanned systems for the military. In representing iRobot to Wall Street, Dryer said he was told it should get it out of defense work because it was killing its stock prices.
When he tried to justify iRobot’s defense business, including an appeal to patriotism, the Wall Street official said: “Joe, what is it about capitalism that you don’t understand?”
“Last year, iRobot divested its defense business, Dryer said.