WASHINGTON — If you’ve ever gone to the store to buy bread in 10 minutes and staggered out 45 minutes later with $30 of chips, cookies and wasabi-flavored peanuts but forgot the bread, then you have an idea of the Department of Defense’s buying problems.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry is tasked with improving how the DOD buys everything from planes to pipes to contracted pencil pushers against a backdrop of deep cuts in military spending. Thornberry knows the American military’s buying habits have been a big issue since the Revolutionary War. Numerous battles have been waged against inefficiency, waste, sluggish delivery and other problems in a system with almost 2,000 pages of regulations.
So when Republican leadership wanted to give him the job of reforming defense acquisition, Thornberry was skeptical at first, but the Republican from Clarendon thinks it will be different this time around.
“Things have gotten so bad everybody realizes we have to make efforts to fix the system,” he said. “The bottom line is that most everything the Pentagon buys is over budget and behind schedule and what that means is the troops who need it are getting less of whatever it is, and they’re getting it late.”
There’s bipartisan interest in the House and Senate in defense acquisition reform, he said.
“The urgency of making improvements is even greater because we have tight budgets,” Thornberry said.
A budget deal approved Thursday in the House and expected to go to the Senate perhaps Tuesday would at least keep the military budget flat for the next two years.
The deal provides some relief from deep, across-the-board cuts called sequestration, but those cuts are slated for the next 10 years.
Thornberry said his initiative is about getting more value for the dollar, but it’s also about getting troops what they need faster.
“Think about the armored vehicles in Iraq. It really can be a matter of life death about how quickly we can make something and get it fielded,” he said.
But his goal in this reform project isn’t to end up with a 2,000 page bill that solves every problem, Thornberry said. His goal is to solve problems as the project progresses.
It’s not about slashing the defense budget either but about giving more flexibility to base-level decision-makers to get more bang for the buck.
For instance, he’s had discussions about saving money on grounds and maintenance at Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, but regulations prevent the pursuit of those money-saving options, Thornberry said. The goal is to give bases more flexibility in decisions and then hold them accountable.
Thornberry expects this reform will be a long-term project.
A defense budget analyst was doubtful about success in reforming defense acquisition.
Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said it’s just a difficult problem. Reform efforts might result in pretty much the same system.