Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller is appreciative of the authority Congress has granted service chiefs to make purchasing decisions and speed new weapons to the field, but laws governing Defense Department acquisition still tie their hands in many cases, he said.
The 2016 National Defense Authorization Act granted the service chiefs veto power over service-specific acquisition programs, including authorization to truncate lengthy development and test requirements for existing technologies like small arms.
At the same time, the Marine Corps commandant, Army chief of staff and chief of naval operations are held accountable for programs that exceed budget and schedule.
“That’s fair, but you’ve got to change the rule set,” Neller said Jan. 25 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “The acquisition rules haven’t changed a whole lot. So, you can hold me accountable, and I accept that. But there are certain things that you have to have happen which are going to allow us to go faster.”
“Everybody wants to go faster. We know we’ve got to faster,” he added. “But with every bid when you make a selection to a particular vendor and somebody who doesn’t get it protests and they go to court and then you go on and on and on. … The process, it’s just no inherently designed to go quick.”
Neller suggested that the services ride the coattails of each other’s existing contracts where a capability is already in production for another force or organization. Unlike high-end collaborative development programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) when commercially available or proven military technologies exist and present added capability for troops, the services should seek out existing contracts to speed acquisition, he said.
“If somebody else has got a capability like the Army or Special Operations Command and they’ve already got a contract and what they have is good enough and it meets our requirement, hey, I’ll just give them the money,” Neller said.
As an example, the Marine Corps purchased about 150 Polaris MRZR D4 light mobility vehicles for infantry units. The off-road all-terrain vehicles were already being produced for SOCOM, which had done all the evaluation and testing legwork. The vehicle fit the Marine Corps main requirement that it fit into a V-22 Osprey, so they latched onto SOCOM’s contract.
By reprogramming funding with congressional approval, Marines were driving MRZR vehicles within three to four months of signing the contract.
“I didn’t have to do any R&D,” Neller said. “It was already there. … Because this stuff, much of it, is already on contract, either with us or with somebody else, we’re going to be able to go pretty fast.”
Neller expects more of the same acquisition workarounds now that former SOCOM acquisition executive James Guerts is assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition. The strategy is limited to procuring existing, relatively uncomplicated technologies not already in the Marine Corps arsenal like small unmanned aerial systems, small arms and other individual troop kit, he said.
“Some of the bigger stuff, it just takes longer,” Neller said. “You’re not going to build an amphib ship in six months.”