Reforming a Defense Acquisition System That Costs Money, Lives

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A scan of any week’s headlines makes clear that the world is not getting any safer, nor are our security challenges getting any simpler.  We face a complex array of threats, known and unknown.

Yet, we will have to meet those threats with tight defense budgets for the foreseeable future.  Even if Congress and the President can agree to find other savings to replace further defense cuts under sequestration -- which we should -- the United States will still have to meet essentially unlimited threats with quite limited resources.  That means it is more important than ever to get the most value possible out of each dollar spent on our national security.

Too much of the money spent now is not used as efficiently or as effectively as it should be.  Upward of 10 percent of the entire federal discretionary budget goes to buying things for our troops, ranging from tanks to toilet paper.  Reform of defense acquisition – the goods as well as the services we buy – must be a top priority. 

There are a lot of good people in and out of government who work hard to see that our military is provided with the best.  But they operate in a system that too often works against them.  Heavy federal regulations drive up the cost of military hardware.  There are nearly 2000 pages of acquisition regulations on the books, many of which have not been reviewed in years.  Too often, Congress and the Pentagon respond to cost overruns by adding another law or an additional oversight office.

The situation has gotten so bad that in order to supply our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, entire new streamlined procurement systems were created in order to circumvent the normal process.

To his credit, Secretary Hagel recently announced an effort to cut 20 per cent of headquarters personnel over the next several years.  But cuts alone, whether in people or in programs, will not fix the system.  It will take Republicans and Democrats, House and Senate, Defense Department and Military Services, industry and trade associations, as well as smart, experienced individuals in and out of government all working together to fix these problems.

The cost of the current system is enormous.  Too much money and manpower is poured into processes and systems that do not yield a single bullet or minute of training.  The weapons and equipment that are produced are too often late and over budget.  But the cost is in more than just dollars.  Delays in getting top quality equipment into the hands of our troops can cost lives, and the overall security of our nation can be affected.

Later this week, a bust of Sir Winston Churchill will be unveiled for permanent display in the United States Capitol.  Upon his appointment as Minister of Munitions toward the end of World War I, Churchill found decision-making at the Ministry a bureaucratic mess.  He once remarked that “Everyone claims his margin at every stage, and the sum of the margins is usually ‘no’.”  Churchill reorganized and simplified decision-making at the Ministry, and the results included a doubling or better in the production of tanks, field guns, and aircraft, all of which were crucial to final victory.

The volatile security environment, our budget constraints, and changes in the way DOD operates have all come together to make this the time to act on defense reform in our own time.  The bottom line is that we can do better – and we must.

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