Senator McCain, a co-sponsor with Senator Levin of the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, yesterday likened the imminent crisis in defence procurement budget overruns to “a train wreck coming”; with $300bn in over-runs last year, this is no insignificant piece of work.  Unfortunately, the train wreck is not coming, we passed it some miles down the track, it was just obscured because it was only two trains in a multi-train pileup.  A regrettable analogy, but effective in this instance.

The legislation puts in place an independent assessor of proposed and ongoing procurements, such as the Joint Strike Fighter.  The independent assessor will examine the contracts, proposals and progress of procurements on their merits, assess the likelihood of success and whether the projections are accurate or not.  This is an excellent idea, and a much needed step forward.  However, managing defence procurement is not simply about having sufficient people in the management office whose titles change from “management” to “independent assessors”.  It is about understanding the procurement process, having systems that prevent gaming of the system by the DoD and contractors, and about a fundamental understanding of capability gap identification and the closing of those gaps.  This important step should simply be the first step in a much wider overhaul of government and defence procurement practices.

There is an element of luck in defence procurement.  Anyone who says otherwise is selling something. There are so many variables, particularly with nascent technology development, that assigning hard figures is difficult.  A good approach is to set boundaries for spends, and to finance to an agreed level of risk (for instance, to the 70% confidence estimate).  This system is open to gaming, as is any system; we are not talking about costing the purchase of 1000 rifles off the shelf from a number of competing weapons manufacturers – these are often capabilities so far only dreamed of, and not even Apple, as far as I know, can price the delivery of a future dream.  They’re probably working on a iDream as we speak though.

I was interested to note the following in the Washington Post, and have quoted it verbatim:

“Everything about the bill is going in the right direction,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. “The part that worries me most is that it assumes Congress is going to do its job of serious oversight,” she said, “and in general, we’re pretty disappointed with Congress in that regard.”

Danielle Brian’s aspirations are misplaced; “serious oversight” is a fallacy – oversight is not responsibility.  Oversight is the review of matters, and then making strategic level decisions to affect the course of events; that is what Congress is now doing.

Responsibility is assigned, and must be taken, at a much lower level.  The real responsibility for managing and overseeing the success of defense procurement rests with the Department of Defense.

Military officers assigned to procurement are serious professionals attempting to achieve what often appears to be the impossible, with competing stakeholders including the field forces, budget holders, Congress (including the requirement to balance pork barrel requirements), their civilian counterparts, lobbyists (normally working for) competing contractors, the public and the media.  Speaking from experience, it is a generally thankless task with limited job satisfaction because the victories are often overwhelmed by the challenges.    As officers we were taught to achieve missions with the resources allocated to us, be that defeating a section of enemy on a hill with two infantry sections and light mortars in support, or delivering a to provide expeditionary ground forces with support able to deny ground and air to the enemy, to destroy discrete targets, to operate in all weathers and at any time.  As military officers the goal is to deliver to the field forces the best possible capability, but this is hamstrung by accommodating the constraints caused by the other stakeholders.  The failure to deliver that capability to budget and time is a failure of mission; we don’t think of defense procurement in those ways because of the involvement of so many non-military parties, but we should.

What is really needed is not simply oversight and independent assessment of projects, but a much wider thought process about how we are delivering procurement, and, if we were to start again, what that procurement would look like.  Such an assessment should not be conducted by a cookie cutter “top tier” consultancy firm – the UK Ministry of Defense used a, possibly the, top tier firm to do just that, and are now paying through the nose for the consultancy firm’s blatant inability to adapt to the military thought process, appointments system and imperatives.  Personally, if I were Gordon Brown I’d be asking for my money back, but the firm in question is a government favorite – demonstrating that it’s not just the US Government with procurement challenges.

This process should be conducted by those serving or retired who understand defense procurement, and can start with a blank whiteboard and think about capability development.  Part of that thought process should be about combating the effect of pork barrel and lobbying on defense procurement, or at least a better system for accommodating and neutralizing the negative effects of these influences.  The creation or maintenance of jobs across the US and in home constituencies are definitely important, but the pork barrel and lobbying are impediments to the cost effective delivery of capability – it is unfair and inappropriate to push all the blame for this on the Department of Defense, when Congress and the government allocations process is part of the problem.

This bill is an important first step, but is simply solving a symptom, not the disease:

Physician, health thyself.

  • Doug Fairfull

    I am a retired AF officer with 40 years in System Acquisition. I have a few comments. Unless the military is willing to spend the time and use experts necessary to write procurement specifications that allow firm fixed price contracting and then not modify the requirement specification it is not possible to deliver a system on time or withing budget. Also, a defense contractor such as Lockheed Martin bids on a system such as the F22 based on a production schedule and production quantity. Congress and the civilian leadership then changes both, supposedly to satisfy budget or political needs. Then they are surprised when the costs escalate, which should come as no surprise to anyone who buys anything.

    Lastly, Secretary Gates is probaly smart, but seems hell bent on buying military systems to fight the last war. The US has a long history of doing this very well, and being woefully underequipped to fight the next war. Sure hope his supposed analysts are correct, and future conflicts will mirror Iraq and Afghanistan. Otherwise God help the troops at the smelly end of the stick.