Service Weapon Buyers Say Congress Can ‘Declare Victory’ On Acquisition Reform

By delegating management of large weapon programs to the military services, Congress may already have achieved the acquisition reforms it and Defense Department leaders have long sought, according to acquisition executives.

Asked whether there have so far been any glaring errors in the reforms Congress has imposed on the defense acquisition system over the past several National Defense Authorization Acts (NDAAs), the chief weapon buyers of the Army, Navy and Air Force on March 6 had few complaints.


“I think the committee should declare victory on the reforms,” Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition William Roper said in answer to House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas). “I think it is what we need as service acquisition executives to go try to restore an appropriate level of decision authority where it belongs.”

“What I expect is that each of us will do is keep coming back to you with slight friction points that can be refined, but they are still going to fit within the overall construct of the reforms that you have put in place,” Roper added.

The 2016 NDAA called for the transfer of management and milestone-decision authority of many service-specific acquisition programs from the Defense Department to the services. Then-Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Ellen Lord oversaw shifting the authorities to the services before splitting that office in two and taking the position of Assistant Secretary of Defense (ASD) for Acquisition and Sustainment. Former NASA Director Michael Griffin took over the other half of AT&L’s former portfolio as ASD for Research and Engineering.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition James Guerts was thankful for the authorities granted to the services, which before 2016 were largely at the mercy of the Undersecretary of Defense for AT&L for milestone decisions on large procurement programs.

“I don’t think you got anything big wrong and I appreciate all the authorities,” he said. “There are plenty of authorities for us to go off and use in all the legislation that’s been passed in the last couple of years.”

Geurts seconded Army Acquisition Chief Bruce Jette that some tweaks could be made to the process as it stands after the programs were returned to service control. Jette said requirements to field some systems to the entire Army within five years were too restrictive given the size of the service.

“If we were able to make that change from fully field to [initial operational capability], and my preference would be IOC and/or Block upgrade, that would give me a great deal more flexibility to apply that section to a broader array of opportunities,” Jette said.

There remains a requirement to run production decisions for certain weapon systems back through the Deputy Secretary of Defense, which Jette said was a redundant process that creates the same bureaucratical headaches the reforms were designed to eliminate.

“We pushed everything down – pushed down many of the programs and [milestone decision authorities] down to the services … but we then turn around and have a … requirement to run everything up through the DepSecDef,” Jette said. “Of course, whenever you move it down and then move it back up, it adds a great deal of additional processes. I would suggest you might consider changing that … or perhaps eliminate that requirement all together.”

Thornberry, who as HASC chairman has spearheaded legislative reforms to speed and simplify defense acquisition, said Jette’s minor gripes were suggested tweaks rather than outright errors. Such friction points could be smoothed in future as long as the overarching effort to reform the acquisition process was on the right track.

Geurts agreed there are some needed tweaks, one being that the myriad and varied laws attacking Pentagon purchasing reformed could be “decluttered.”

“I would agree … that there’s some areas where there is conflicting guidance,” Geurts said. “I would put that in the refinement category. … The big trick is figuring how to operationalize them through a trained workforce.”

Echoing Guerts, the Air Force’s Roper said the challenge now is empowering the services' acquisition work forces to exercise their newly granted authorities and to push both innovation and decision making down the chain of command. He chalked this and other desired tweaks up to “implementation details” about which the acquisition executives would be in constant contact with HASC and its Senate counterpart committee.

“We now have to equip a workforce that is ready to take the reins that you have allowed us to put in their hands, to feel empowered to use them and also know what the boundaries are,” Roper said.

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