McCain To Military Weapon Buyers: Restore Accountability

The acquisition chiefs for the Defense Department and the military services at once were put on notice by lawmakers that they must figure out how to buy weapons in a timely and affordable manner.

Congress has handed ever increasing authority to the military service chiefs and their civilian counterparts to swiftly buy weapons and gear they need, said Senate Armed Services Committee Chair John McCain, (R-Ariz.).

McCain flat-out asked Ellen Lord, the assistant deputy of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, who she plans to hold accountable for programs with cost overruns in the billions like F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the Warfighter Information Network Tactical (WIN-T) and Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

“Who's been fired?” McCain repeatedly asked Lord.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, 39th Chief of Staff of the Army, hosts a special Twilight Tattoo performance to recognize Senator John S. McCain III, for his over 63 years of dedicated service to the Nation and the U.S. Military in Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Nov. 14, 2017. Senator McCain was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal for his exceptional voluntary contributions to the United States Army and Military. (U.S. Army photos by Pfc. Gabriel Silva)

Gen. Mark A. Milley, 39th Chief of Staff of the Army, hosted a special Twilight Tattoo performance to recognize Senator John S. McCain III, for his over 63 years of dedicated service to the Nation and the U.S. Military in Conmy Hall, Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall, Va., Nov. 14, 2017. Senator McCain was awarded the Outstanding Civilian Service Medal for his exceptional voluntary contributions to the United States Army and Military. (U.S. Army photos by Pfc. Gabriel Silva)

"I mean, there's such a thing as accountability, and all of the things that were just covered by the witnesses here...there's no penalty for failure," he said. "...When I go to a town hall meeting and tell my constituents that we blew $6 billion and there has not been anyone fired or replaced or…a new way of doing things, they're not really very happy."

She said simply, "we hold people accountable" for acquisition failures, and said the Defense Department is looking at "whether we have appropriate people in appropriate slots" but will give no details in public. Lord asked to meet McCain and other senators in their offices to discuss the firings that she hinted were in the works.

All of the service acquisition chiefs described ways in which they are attempting to decrease the time it takes them to buy weapons and gear. Lord, whose job should not exist in February, said the Defense Department can cut procurement lead time for contracting by half. Her goal is to get contract within 210 days of request for proposals as interim goal.

Answering McCain’s question directly, newly confirmed Army Secretary Mark Esper was the lone witness to admit that no one has been fired specifically for failing to deliver on the Army’s long-canceled Future Combat Systems (FCS).

"Senator, I'm not aware of anyone being fired for FCS, to your point," he said.

McCain wants folks fired when acquisition programs swallow billions of dollars and fail to deliver. As SASC chair, he opened the meeting with a biting critique–as he is wont to do–of infamously costly programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, LCS, and WIN-T.

Those programs, which McCain has a habit of harping on, have devoured billions in research and development dollars without yielding the platforms called for. McCain wants the services to innovate faster and fail more frequently before a program becomes “too big to fail.”

“We would rather have a small failure early in the acquisition process than a multi-billion-dollar program that becomes ‘too big to fail,’” he said.

Pentagon acquisition is a "system of organized irresponsibility,” he said.

Lord answered that she would meet with McCain in private to explain the “steps we are taking” to hold acquisition professionals accountable. She intimated that specific people are targeted for termination but would not share them with the committee in an open hearing.

“We hold people accountable" for acquisition failures, she said and Lord’s shop is looking into "whether we have appropriate people in appropriate slots" but would give no details in public.

"We, as a team, are working very closely together to look at functions and individuals in OSD and in the services, the duties they're required to perform," she said, "and are determining whether or not we have the right people in the right slots, and I don't want to talk about individuals here in a broad forum."

Unsatisfied, McCain said there “is no reason you cannot tell the American people.”

“Accountability...that’s our form of government,” he said.

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