House Armed Services Committee (HASC) Ranking Member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) opposes a proposal by Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to eliminate the Defense Department’s acquisition, technology and logistics (AT&L) office.

Smith said Wednesday though he generally believes McCain’s proposal “doesn’t make sense,” he wants to hear McCain’s argument in conference before he makes his final decision. Smith said he expects the two committees to vote to go to conference before lawmakers leave Washington on July 15 for the national conventions and summer recess.

Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

Smith’s position sets up a showdown as House and Senate authorizers enter conference as eliminating AT&L and farming its responsibilities to the individual services is one of McCain’s priorities in acquisition reform.

“I think to have true ‘jointness,’ you do need one person who is above all of the services looking at acquisition issues,” Smith told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast in Washington. “Off the top, it doesn’t strike me as a good proposal.”

In the spirit of accelerating the timeline of how the Pentagon acquires weapons and platforms, McCain’s proposal would eliminate the position of chief weapons buyer Frank Kendall, formally known as the under secretary of defense for AT&L. Instead of designating one individual to be responsible for the whole of acquisition, the committee would divide duties among officials including a new under secretary of defense for research and engineering USD(R&E)—who would focus on technological innovation—and the renamed undersecretary of management and support, a key figure overseeing the business operations of the department.

Another aggressive proposal put forth by McCain is reform of Goldwater-Nichols, the 1986 law that reworked the command structure of the Pentagon, strengthened the role of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and redesigned personnel incentives. The Senate defense authorization bill would more clearly define the role of the combatant commands by establishing that the primary duties of the combatant commands are to execute the national defense strategy in consultation with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Currently, six of the nine combatant commands, aside from Strategic, Special Operations and Transportation, are defined by geography.

Though not committing to the proposal, Smith said he was “intrigued” by the possibility of eliminating the geographic command structure as he believes DoD has to move in that direction. Smith said he wants to look at criticism from the White House and the arguments McCain makes in conference and figure out a way that works.

Smith said the biggest impediment to getting a defense authorization bill passed by the end of the fiscal year, Sept. 30, was agreeing to a topline budget number. The House-approved authorization bill authorized $610.5 billion with $523.6 billion in discretionary base budget and $35.7 billion in Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) spending. The Senate approved authorization bill authorized a topline of $602 billion with $543 billion for base budget and $59 billion for OCO.

The House approved providing appropriations of $576 billion with $517 billion in base budget and $59 billion in OCO spending. The Senate has not voted on a defense appropriations bill yet, but the Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) approved $575 billion with $516 billion in base and $59 billion in OCO. The Senate could debate the defense appropriations bill this week.

Smith called the SAC-approved appropriations bill the “most promising” as it added $15 billion to the base budget, but also subtracted about $15 billion. He was confident that the conference committees could figure out a topline number and get a defense authorization bill passed.

Heading into conference, Smith said his priorities are acquisition reform, Goldwater-Nichols reform and finding reasonable, long-term savings that coincide with the Army’s end strength number. The House-approved authorization bill requires an end strength increase of 25,000 for the Army and Army Reserve. This would cost an additional $3 billion, according to a bill summary.

Senate authorizers recommended 460,000 active Army troops for FY ’17, saying that they recognize the need to reassess the Army’s size in conjunction with available funding sources and threats facing the nation. The Army requested 460,000 active troops for FY ’17. The Army wants to scale down to 450,000 troops by the end of FY ’18.

“If all of the sudden, budget caps come back (next year), and the Pentagon is forced to cut (roughly) 30,000 troops in a month, that’s just a nightmare,” Smith said. “I think if we go above that number facing budget caps next year, you really put yourself on an unsustainable path.”