Posted: December 7, 2017 5:00 PM

Senate Armed Services Leaders to Acquisition Officials: ‘We Must Do Much, Much Better’

By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent

WASHINGTON — After an intense badgering by Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., about past acquisition failures, officials from the Pentagon and the services testified Dec. 7 that they were using the new authorities provided by Congress to accelerate and simplify their processes to get new technologies to the warfighters faster and cheaper.

The witnesses emphasized use of rapid acquisition offices, more use of commercial, off-the-shelf products and giving increased power to the services to reduce the historically long time from concept to fielding of new systems.

But Ellen M. Lord, the new undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L); the Army and Air Force secretaries; and James F. Geurts, the newly installed assistant Navy secretary for Research, Development and Acquisition, said it would take time to re-educate their acquisition workforce and to change the culture to make fundamental improvements.

After citing the “dysfunction” of the tri-service F-35 program and the delays in the littoral combat ship program among other problems, McCain told the officials, “the system must move faster. Time is of the essence.

“You need to be willing to take risks,” he said, then acknowledged that “Congress makes that difficult.”

With the reforms contained in the last two National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAA), McCain said, “this is an opportunity to update your procedures. I’d rather you fail than do nothing.”

Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the senior Democrat, said “we have a shared goal to ensure our services have the best equipment we can develop and buy.”

Reed noted that the latest NDAA directed that the services “play a key role” in developing the systems needed by the combatant commanders.

“We must do much, much better. That’s why we’re here today.”

Lord, who took over the AT&L office this fall after 33 years in the defense industry, acknowledged that the NDAAs have given the Defense Department the opportunity to restore the military’s technology overmatch that was being eroded by the rapidly growing Chinese military.

Focusing on one of McCain’s favorite acquisition problem children, Lord said “we’re determined to reduce the price of production and sustainment” of the F-35 program. She said her office has started an intensive cost review, dealing with the prime contractors — Lockheed Martin, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce — and down the supply chain “to understand in detail” what the aircraft costs.

The results “will inform our production contract negotiations,” she said.

Lord said her office also has implemented six pilot programs to test ways to speed acquisition, and is using the new hiring authority in the NDAA to bring in people with skills in cyber and testing.

Army Secretary Mark T. Esper listed a number of initiatives his service is making to speed up its acquisition process, which was roundly criticized by McCain and other committee members for its future combat systems failure and the 20-year struggle to field a new service handgun.

“I fully believe we’ll see marked progress in coming months,” Esper said, but added, “the ultimate test” will be seen on future battlefields.

Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson also cited improvements implemented under the new authority, including the program to test candidates for a light attack aircraft, which went from inception to a final report to her in four months.

Geurts, who came to the Navy position after years doing acquisition for the Special Operations Command — which has been praised for its rapid fielding of equipment requested by the operators — said the Navy “has embraced the recent acquisition reforms on multiple fronts. We have made significant progress and will continue to do so.”

But Geurts joined the other witnesses in warning that meaningful improvements in the acquisition process required “predictable and stable funding” and reform of the 2011 Budget Control Act and its spending limits and threat of sequestration.

McCain demanded to know who had been held accountable for what he called the $3 billion cost overrun for the Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier and the $6 billion wasted on the failed future combat systems, but was told no one had been fired or otherwise punished.

The four witnesses said they are taking action to increase the time major program managers stay in their positions, which they said could improve accountability.

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