Seize the Moment on Defense Acquisition Reform
Does the United States spend too much or too little on national defense? That was the question the Gallup polling organization posed to Americans in February. That survey revealed a roughly even split between those who say U.S. military spending is “too much,” those who think we spend “too little” and those who think it’s “about right.”
As a strong advocate for a robust defense, and therefore a close observer of the debate over defense spending, I know that’s only part of the question. The top line number for defense spending is important, but there’s another question we must be asking: Given what the United States spends on defense, are we getting the most for our investment? And the answer to that question is, unfortunately, no.
Tales of wasteful spending in Department of Defense (DoD) weapons programs are now legendary. Government watchdogs and the media report regularly on cost overruns, endless schedule delays and performance problems in weapons systems that only hint at the depth of the crisis. Between 2001 and 2011, the DoD spent $44 billion dollars on failed weapon development programs and hundreds of billions more on cost overruns in troubled procurement initiatives like the Joint Strike Fighter program.
These figures are staggering, but the problem is not simply a matter of dollars and cents. Our broken acquisition system is failing to deliver much-needed equipment to our warfighters and has forced them to continue to rely on aging weapon system that, at best, are rapidly becoming outdated or at worst, endangering our warfighters. This not only reduces the qualitative edge of our military, but also endangers the lives—and the missions—of our military personnel. Yet in spite of these serious problems and a bipartisan longing to repair the Pentagon’s broken acquisition system, real leadership on reform has been elusive.
But, in this Congress, there is finally reason for a renewed hope for reform—with strong acquisitions reform advocates holding key leadership positions in Congress and the Department of Defense. Rep. Mac Thornberry has long advocated for acquisitions reform and is now chairman of the House Armed Service Committee. Sen. John McCain, now chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has consistently decried Pentagon waste and has never shied from a fight with Pentagon brass. Finally, Ash Carter, who has an in-depth understanding of the Pentagon bureaucracy and who has advocated for fixing the acquisition system while working within the DoD, is now the Secretary of Defense. This trifecta of powerful reform advocates represents a rare opportunity to advance substantive reforms to defense acquisitions.
Already, Chairman Mac Thornberry has proposed an opening bid for reforming the defense acquisitions process that should serve as the blueprint for the way forward. Both Chairman McCain and Secretary Carter have signaled support for such an effort.
Thornberry’s initial proposal, which focuses on simplifying the procurement process, reducing needless paperwork and regulatory burdens and developing a clearer and more agile acquisition strategy, is the first step toward a broader overhaul in the way the Pentagon does business.
This last point, that Thornberry’s reform package is incremental, is critical. Far too often, our leaders in Washington have fallen under the spell of “comprehensive reform” and sweeping “transformations” that fail to deliver. By proposing and implementing achievable reforms to take place over the next six years, Thornberry has developed a more modest approach that has a greater chance of succeeding.
Americans need only glance at the news to see that the number of threats around the globe is multiplying. With nations in the Middle East and Africa struggling with Islamist threats, civil wars and dangerous instability, with Russia attempting to reassert its dominance in Eastern Europe and with China growing more aggressive in the Pacific and rapidly modernizing its weapons platforms, it’s increasingly clear there will continue to be significant and diverse threats facing the United States and its military. At the same time, a growing national debt and persistent budget deficit continue to increase domestic pressure on defense spending.
These factors—more threats and tighter budgets—make it more important than ever that we squeeze greater value out of existing defense spending. Even a modest acquisition reform effort that serves to rationalize spending and ensure greater accountability, flexibility and agility will be a very important step in the right direction.
In recent years, Washington has failed repeatedly to find bipartisan solutions to our nation’s problems. But defense acquisition reform is one priority on which Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together to get results—especially the iterative version advanced by Chairman Thornberry. Congress, the President and the DoD must seize this opportunity to change the way the Pentagon does business in order to ensure our warfighters have what they need to dominate on the 21st century battlefield.