Not Rocket Science

U.S. Defense Reform Needs Leadership and Oversight.

| Thu Sep. 29, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

Article created by the Center for Defense Information.

For years, national security experts have warned of a train wreck in the Pentagon’s budget: rising unit costs for weapons to the point where so few can be bought that our forces cannot be supported. The train wreck is here. The current plan in Washington will make things worse.

Hardware costs have escalated at an accelerating rate since World War II. Weapon inventories have been shrinking and growing older. Elderly equipment is more expensive to repair, and as we pinch maintenance pennies to throw more dollars at buying not enough new equipment, our arsenal becomes less battle-ready.

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The Senate Armed Services Committee has noticed that costs for combat ships have gotten so astounding that we can buy only four, an annual buying rate that the Congressional Budget Office estimates is about half of what is needed to keep the fleet at its current reduced size of 287 ships.

 

With submarines today at $2.5 billion each, destroyers at $3.7 billion each and aircraft carriers at a breathtaking $13.7 billion, it’s small wonder.

U.S. senators have come up with a response: Increase costs. You see, if the Navy competes the contract for its new DD(X) destroyer, analysts expect one of America’s two remaining surface combatant shipyards will go out of business, probably the one in Maine.

The defense bill now in the Senate will guarantee the Maine shipyard DD(X) contracts, and keep the competitor in Mississippi happy with guaranteed destroyer work as well. The Navy estimates the additional cost per ship at $300 million.

Showing its concern, the Pentagon has assembled a panel, the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment (DAPA). It consists of former Defense Department officials who helped produce today’s state of affairs and corporate managers from those paragons of cost restraint, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

If anyone is expecting real reform from this bunch, note the prediction of John Douglass, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, which lobbied hard for the F-22 fighter, renowned for its huge cost overruns. He said, “We have a lot of confidence that good things will come of this.”

It might be useful to offer some ideas to match against the DAPA panel’s eventual recommendations and the defense bill in the Senate. I suggest just three simple concepts, based on my 30 years of work on defense procurement issues in Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Stop making things worse. Beyond the Senate Armed Services Committee’s cost-increasing gift to DD(X) shipbuilders, consider the House Armed Services Committee’s proposal to control cost by telling the Pentagon not to buy hardware prematurely and then ordering it to purchase the C-130J transport, the first aircraft in decades to flunk its operational testing.

Stick to basics. Each year we learn more horror stories about the Pentagon’s financial management, this year termed “absolutely atrocious” by GAO Comptroller Gen. David Walker. When you don’t know whether the check you are sending to the contractor is the first, second or third time you paid for the product or whether it was delivered, it’s time to go back to fundamentals.

Without real financial management, the reform activity Congress favors today — rejiggering procurement regulations — amounts to nothing more than changing the linen in the bordello. Pentagon managers with programs that cannot pass an audit should be fired.

In the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln went through several military commanders before he found one who could win. Competent program management is infinitely simpler than winning battles; it’s time for management heads to roll.

It’s “oversight,” not “overlook.” Charging off in the wrong direction and not holding people accountable are symptoms of a system that does not care where it is going. Congress has a proud history of investigatory committees that uncovered horror stories and took difficult but appropriate action. That tradition today is so dead and buried it will not be resurrected without a wholesale change in Congress, both members and staff.

It is the latter who should be, but are not, uncovering information, especially when senators and representatives don’t want to hear it, which is often.

Real defense acquisition reform is not rocket science. However, while simple, it is not easy, especially in today’s environment that combines selfishly partisan politics with leadership in the Pentagon that tries to paint criticism as unpatriotic. When Congress and panels like DAPA make recommendations, consider whether they make things better or just bring joy to the lobbyists on K Street.

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