Senators: Military must keep up acquisition reforms, stem losses from failed programs

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson answers a question about military acquisitions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. Also attending the hearing were, from left: Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics Ellen Lord; Secretary of the Army Mark Esper; and Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development, and Acquisition James Geurts


By CLAUDIA GRISALES | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 7, 2017

WASHINGTON — A Senate panel on Thursday implored military leaders to keep up Defense Department acquisition reforms and help stem a series of financial and competitive losses in recent years.

Senate Armed Services Committee members said during a Capitol Hill hearing that the military’s efforts to improve its acquisition programs has been positive, much work remains.

“Acquisition reform is one of the most important — and frustrating — topics this committee addresses. For years, we have been warned that America is losing its technological advantage,” Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told military officials. “The Department of Defense needs acquisition reform — not just for efficiency or to save money. Simply put, we will not be able to address the threats facing this nation with the system of organized irresponsibility that the defense acquisition enterprise has become.”

The list of costly mistakes is long, senators argued.

McCain, who is the chairman of the Armed Services committee, pointed to continued problems with the $1 trillion F-35 program “that continues to operate in dysfunction.” In addition, the Army has spent $6.5 billion on a battlefield communications system, which “doesn’t work,” he said. Meanwhile, the Navy’s program for small vessels used in operations close to shore, known as its Littoral Combat Ship Class, is delayed with key capabilities still unproven and costs at $6 billion and rising, McCain added.

The military officials who testified, which included representatives for the Department of Defense, the Army, Navy and Air Force, said they are making progress with their acquisition program reforms.

Among the improvements, the services have gained new freedoms through legislation to move forward in their own acquisition programs faster, the panel of witnesses said. Also, the time that it takes to make an acquisition is getting shorter and the paperwork required for requests for proposals is being reduced.

But military officials conceded there’s plenty of work to do.

“I am encouraged by the progress the Army has made, consistent with congressional direction to begin overhauling the current system,” said Mark Esper, who was sworn in last month as Army secretary. “To be sure, a long ride lies ahead and the challenges are great.”

The Army is implementing a five-part acquisition reform effort, including mapping out a new command, the most significant change to the Army’s procurement system since 1973, Esper said.

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense acquisition, technology and logistics, said she is hopeful that acquisition reforms will be addressed quickly, especially now that the Pentagon and Capitol Hill are working toward the same goal.

“[Previously,] I don’t think the focus was on cost-effective, quick solutions and I don’t think people had the intestinal fortitude to come up here to say what needed to be changed,” Lord said. “We have an environment now where we are have a huge amount of people that are all aligned on the same objective … and I see a lot of momentum between the (Pentagon) and the Hill to work together to achieve our shared goals.”

Among its new efforts, the Pentagon is moving forward with a restructuring of its Office of Under Secretary of Defense, adding two new undersecretaries, to address acquisition, technology, logistics and research engineering. The new undersecretaries will solve critical technical warfighting challenges and focus on improving the affordability and timely delivery of defense equipment and supplies, Lord said.

The department is also shaping up its modernization strategy to line up with congressional goals for the new undersecretaries, Lord said.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said the service has gained new authorities to handle more of their acquisition programs as well as other new efficiencies.

The Air Force manages 470 acquisition programs, worth about $158 billion for 5 years, she said.

Wilson presented one of example of the improvements: the service’s downsized, new letter of invitation and four-page set of requirements for light-attack aircrafts. The packet was released in March and in less five months, the Air Force had four aircraft to test at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, she said.

“So in less than 11 months, with five pages, we have tested four aircrafts for the United States,” Wilson said.

Lawmakers said they were impressed with the progress, so far.

“This is one of the best hearings I’ve seen on this subject in five years,” said Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “You are clearly focused on this problem.”

Twitter: @cgrisales


Secretary of the Army Mark Esper answers a question about military acquisitions during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017. "A long ride lies ahead and the challenges are great," Esper said concerning overhauling the Defense Departments current acquisition system.

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