The Promise and Peril of Mac Thornberry’s Defense Acquisition Reform


Editor’s Note: This article was authored by the Defense Reform Committee of the Project for the Common Defense.


One day, “[t]he entire defense budget will purchase just one aircraft.” So predicted Norm Augustine in 1984. Lockheed Martin’s chairman and CEO further prophesied that “This aircraft will have to be shared by the Air Force and Navy three-and-a-half days each per week except for leap year, when it will be made available to the Marines for the extra day.”

We’re not there yet. But we’re on the way.

According to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2014 was the most “complex” year for the Pentagon in almost five decades. Military leaders must contend with ever-evolving, ever changing threat environment, even as our defense acquisition system fails to deliver timely and affordable capabilities. It’s a major strategic liability.

Against this backdrop, Congressman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, this week announced a series of reforms that aim to make the defense acquisition process more “proactive, agile, transparent, and innovative.” His proposals are based on what he learned during 18 months of discussions with government and industry stakeholders. His proposals are a much-needed step in the right direction, but they are, as Rep. Thornberry admits, only the beginning of a protracted process.

Previous acquisition reform campaigns have produced a rather lackluster track record. But Thornberry’s initiative appears to be positioned for success, thanks to an unprecedented meeting of the minds between Congress and the current Department of Defense (DoD) leadership. Taking a measured, practical approach, Thornberry’s proposal tackles the fundamental workforce, bureaucratic, and innovation issues that lead to cost overruns and delivery delays.

It seeks to improve “process agility” by reducing unnecessary reporting requirements and leveraging private sector innovation. It also expands career and training opportunities for DoD acquisition professionals and gives them greater authority. The idea is that a more capable and empowered workforce will be better equipped to manage increasingly complex programs. To reduce risk, the initiative prescribes an incremental approach; further improvements will be introduced only after the real-world impacts of preceding reforms have been measured and proved to be effective.

But time can be a problem. Thornberry’s initiative is a multi-year legislative strategy, yet the DoD triumvirate of Secretary Ash Carter, Deputy Secretary Bob Work, and Under Secretary for Acquisition Frank Kendall will be gone in less than two years. This simple fact could retard the momentum of the entire program. An equally existential threat is the institution Thornberry is a member of – Congress. When unveiling his proposal, Thornberry specifically cited budget volatility and the politics that drive it as one of the biggest obstacles to establishing a stable and effective defense acquisition process.

Thornberry chose to take an incremental approach to avoid an unwieldy reform effort. But the focus on small, “quick wins” could become counterproductive if the longer-term vision behind the effort is not clearly articulated. Modest individual measures, for example, may not resonate with either Hill staffers or DoD acquisition officials unless placed in the context of the overall effort.

Maintaining focus over what Thornberry predicts will be a six-year reform campaign can be difficult. The ongoing Presidential Export Control Reform Initiative offers a telling example. Launched in 2010, this effort was designed to create “a system where higher walls are placed around fewer, more critical items.”  After a promising start, the initiative has become so time consuming that many defense leaders feel it is running out of steam.

Nevertheless, defense acquisition reform is necessary. As Secretary Carter stated years ago, “to maintain a technological edge, we need to align our acquisition system with commercial market forces.” Congress has an excellent opportunity to reverse the bureaucratic inclination to centralize acquisition authority and micromanage the acquisitions process. By eliminating outdated red tape, Thornberry’s proposal should also provide new opportunities for commercial companies with innovative technologies and concepts to participate in the DoD marketplace. That can help ensure the military has access to the best available technologies at the best possible price.

Ultimately, Thornberry’s reforms would allow DoD to exploit more fully the world’s leading source of innovation: the U.S. commercial technology base. Capitalizing on this resource is crucial to giving our military a technology “edge” on future battlefields.

Thornberry’s long-term initiative, as opposed to more sweeping defense acquisition reform legislation like Goldwater-Nichols, begs the question as to whether political momentum can be sustained long enough to overcome the usual barriers to wholesale reform. However, incremental reform that better aligns DoD with the defense industry and the commercial market, expands information sharing, and empowers the acquisition workforce offers a ray of hope. At least for the next two years.


Fred Ferreira is a policy analyst at Concerned Veterans for America and previously at The Heritage Foundation.

Adam Jay Harrison is Director of the Center for Smart Defense at West Virginia University. He is former Director of the Department of Defense Technical Operations Support Activity and founder of Mav6.

Emil Maine is a Research Assistant in The Heritage Foundation where he is also a George C. Marshall Fellow.

Dr. John G. (Jerry) McGinn is President of McGinn Defense Consulting and Chairman of the Defense Reform Committee of the Project for the Common Defense.

Stephen Rodriguez is a Venture Partner with New York-based Abundance Partners. He is also a Term Member at the Council on Foreign Relations and President of the Foreign Policy Initiative’s Leadership Council.


Photo credit: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff