Houston, We Have a Problem: Russian Rockets, NATO Solidarity and the Need for Defense Acquisition Reform

April 25, 2014

The U.S. Government has a right hand-left hand problem: the right hand doesn’t always know what the left is doing.  This is, in part, by design; we have three branches of Government, after all.  And, to be fair, most of the time we muddle through and solve our policy disconnects, albeit with slightly deeper wrinkles and slightly higher stress levels.

But sometimes we don’t, and sometimes the results can be quite damaging.  Case in point:  the U.S. is apparently trying to acquire additional rocket engines from the very Russian oligarchs it is sanctioning in response to aggression in Ukraine.

Purchased by the Air Force and supplied by the United Launch Alliance (Lockheed Martin and Boeing), the Atlas V rocket is used for launching things like satellites – even satellites used by the U.S. intelligence community.  The Atlas V depends upon Russian built, Russian supplied engines.  In other words, we’re paying Russia to supply engines for rockets that are used for potentially sensitive national security missions, at the lowest point in U.S.-Russian relations since the end of the Cold War.

Houston, we have a problem.

This transaction not only sends mixed signals to the Kremlin; it also sends mixed signals to our allies and partners in Europe.  NATO allies, particularly those in Central and Eastern Europe, are profoundly disturbed by Russia’s actions in Ukraine.  In order to reassure those Allies, the United States has planned exercises with Ukraine, deployed elements of the 173rd Airborne Brigade to Poland and the Baltics – in addition to the punitive sanctions it announced earlier in the crisis.  Additionally, the U.S. has encouraged other NATO allies to sanction Russia, including, for example, halting the French sale of a Mistral warship to the Russian Navy.  If the U.S. is serious about reinforcing NATO solidarity in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, it would do well to ensure its defense acquisition activities do not undermine its own messages about rolling back Russian aggression.

The transaction also suggests that the U.S. must also get its house in order.  Specifically, its has got to tackle defense acquisition reform as a matter of urgency.  The Federal Acquisition Regulations are the rules that govern the way the Government purchases anything from staplers to submarines – and they happen to be thousands of pages long.  Put simply, these regulations and red tape are preventing our own defense industry from being as efficient as it must be, particularly as fiscal austerity continues constraining budgets.  The regulations also create barriers to entry for new, innovative firms that are often extremely costly to surmount – especially because you practically need a PhD in defense acquisition to be able to do business with the Government.

The complexity of the Federal Acquisition Regulations – combined with the complexity of emerging defense capability needs – requires highly skilled, technically proficient people to manage and oversee acquisition programs.  But many are arguing that the current contracting workforce’s skills do not meet today’s requirements, as many have neither the technical competence, nor managerial expertise to manage sophisticated defense programs.  So it’s no wonder programs like the Joint Strike Fighter experience significant delays.  It’s no wonder that the Pentagon proved unable to provide a basic audit of its own spending.  It’s no wonder that our Government often finds itself with limited options when buying sensitive defense equipment.

And it’s no wonder that the Air Force is buying Russian rockets, undermining NATO solidarity and the U.S. sanctions program in the process.  If the U.S. is to remain a credible, effective leader in the global community, it needs to start solving these right hand/left hand problems.


Photo credit: NASA Goddard Photo and Video