Don’t Believe the Defense Acquisition Reform Hype


The likely nomination of Ashton Carter as Secretary of Defense has increased expectations of substantial reform in the Pentagon’s acquisition system. Conventional wisdom holds that the quintet of Carter, Robert Work, Frank Kendall, John McCain, and Mac Thornberry will work together to bring about meaningful — almost revolutionary — change in the way the Department of Defense obtains its weaponry.

Don’t believe the hype. Delivery times are too slow. Weaponry is too costly. Competition barely exists. Government and industry still struggle to interact with one another. All of these are deep-seeded problems with the defense acquisition process that no group of men, even with Carter at the helm, can fix all at once.

Despite the certainty that these five will try to reform the current acquisition process, massive, wholesale change is highly unlikely for three reasons: Carter will not have a lot of time to focus on defense acquisition; Congress will focus mostly on oversight, not reform, which will lead to incremental change at best; and the current path of reform is already the accepted path.

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To the first point, as much as Carter may want to focus on acquisition reform, the tides of global events are against him. Over the next two years, the United States will be involved with combating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, handling the Iranian nuclear issue, tensions in the South China Sea, confronting a resurgent Taliban, spreading terrorism, and rapidly-developing humanitarian crises like Ebola. All of these issues require substantial attention and Carter only has two years (unless he is asked to stay on by President Obama’s successor. And, as world affairs have proven recently, we are likely in for some sort of under-the-radar surprise that will require even more American forward engagement in the world. Even though this White House notoriously micromanages the country’s foreign and defense policies, Carter will still be expected to contribute substantively on shaping the policy and strategy, all while being the face of the administration abroad related to the defense dimensions of these matters. So, even if Carter did want to devote the majority of his time to defense acquisition reform, sadly the clock and calendar are not on his side.

Second, those who are more sanguine about reform’s chances point to Senator John McCain and Representative Mac Thornberry, who run the Armed Services Committees in their respective chambers. They will undoubtedly draw attention to the issue, but expect strict and vociferous oversight as opposed to meaningful and substantive reform. McCain will surely host multiple hearings on cost overruns and delivery delays as he has in the past on systems like the Littoral Combat Ship, and will therefore not do much to change the system other than point out its faults. Most of Senator McCain’s attention will be diverted toward grand strategy and repurposing America’s role in the world as he considers his legacy during his last years in the Senate. Representative Thornberry will be the most active on the reform front, most likely working to rewrite existing legislation. However, he will likely fail to simplify the defense acquisition process because his sole attention to the issue will not be enough solve its near intractable problems. Without substantive support from his Senate counterpart and Pentagon officials, Thornberry will work hard to make something happen but will not be able to fix the system. That said, Thornberry will be able to get some measures through, but they are more likely to be aimed at keeping costs down as much as possible, hindering research, development, and experimentation — which could ultimately leave to lower costs in the long run, to the cost of our defense capabilities and efforts such as the new “offset strategy.” Yet, it is important to note that, this Republican-led Congress will be friendlier to ending the financial constraints on the Department of Defense (the sigh of relief from American defense contractors is audible.) That still will not change the overall tone in Congress toward defense acquisition reform which is that it is too hard to fix, partially because it is very technical but mostly because the status quo brings money to the districts of many Congressmen. If the system changes, the money and the votes may go away. At best, then, we can expect Congress to point all the problems, but not legislation to finds solutions.

Lastly, Better Buying Power 3.0 (BBP 3.0), the path chosen by the Department of Defense to improve the defense acquisition process — started by Carter and currently put into action by Kendall — has not received much pushback from Congress. In fact, there is bipartisan agreement that the system is broken and needs fixing, and BBP 3.0 is as good a strategy to deal with the issue as any. A letter from Kendall to McCain last June showed they both agree that “defense acquisition improvement, as opposed to defense acquisition reform, should be our goal.” Not surprisingly, a report from the National Defense Industrial Association is in agreement, with most of the proposals having to do with improving the workforce and culture within the Pentagon’s acquisition department, as opposed to reforming the system from the ground up. With Congress taking a mostly oversight role, and the Department of Defense out in front with a proposed way forward, it is reasonable to expect that not much will change between now and the end of 2016. The Pentagon will continue apace with its incremental change agenda and Congress will bloviate whenever something goes awry.

There is certainly movement and appetite for reform. The problem is that the “change is nigh” refrain has become a tired prediction that never pans out. The next two years may see the most quantitative movement on defense acquisition reform, but not the most qualitative. That said, it is imperative that change come soon, because “even a small improvement in performance of the acquisition system can make a difference of billions in the cost of equipping the military,” according to a defense acquisition expert. One can only hope that “The Trinity” in the Pentagon and the “Dynamic Duo” in Congress can make wholesale change happen, but it is not likely.

With Carter at the helm, expect small steps, but nothing major, in the acquisition process.


Alex Ward is an Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security where he works on U.S. defense and military strategy and policy. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexWardB.