Army puts its chief of staff ‘at the center’ of acquisition decisions

The Army is enthusiastically embracing the new acquisition authorities Congress gave the military service chiefs in last year’s Defense authorization bill and plans to ask for a second round of changes that would grant it more autonomy to make procurement decisions without second-guessing from Pentagon officials.

Of all the military services, the Army has been the most active in asking Congress for a partial restoration of the acquisition powers the service chiefs lost in the 1980s during the Goldwater-Nichols reforms. The Army’s new chief, Gen. Mark Milley is putting the new authorities to use right away, including by revitalizing the Army Requirements Oversight Council (AROC), which he will personally chair.

“The chief is excited and he’s embraced the new responsibilities. He thinks it’s a great first step,” Lt. Gen. John Murray, the deputy chief of staff for resources (G-8) told the annual McAleese-Credit Suisse defense conference in Washington Thursday. “The key part is it puts the chief in the center of the acquisition process, bringing the budgeting, requirements and acquisition circles together, with him in the middle, to make some key decisions.”

In the 2016 defense bill, Congress sought to add accountability to the acquisition process by formally defining Milley and the other service chiefs as the “customers” of the acquisition system, while also requiring them to personally sign off on the Selected Acquisition Reports (SAR) the military services send to Congress when a program has suffered cost or schedule overruns.

Murray said the biggest short-term change will be a much more direct role for Milley in determining the Army’s requirements for acquisition programs, primarily through the AROC, whose prestige and institutional importance had dwindled over the last several years.

“When I came into this job as the G-8, it was 5 months before I saw an AROC session — even a paper version,” he said. “Requirements were being determined at a level much lower than the chief of staff. Gen. Milley has made clear to us that there are only two people who can define the Army’s requirements: the chief of staff and the vice chief of staff.”

Milley also ordered a significant change to the membership of the AROC. Previously, it was made up of the Pentagon-based deputy chiefs of staff who represent various functions within Army headquarters.

The revised AROC is meant to be less “staff-centric” and more representative of the users and developers of Army systems. The new members will be the commanders of Army Forces Command, Training and Doctrine Command, Army Materiel Command, Army Cyber Command, Army Test and Evaluation Command and Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Once requirements are approved and acquisition programs are formally up and running, the same council will be in charge of making “trades” when it’s necessary to scale back a system’s capability in exchange for lower costs or faster deliveries.

“That is the body that will concur with milestone decisions and sign the SAR reports before they go up to [Undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics] Frank Kendall,” Murray said. “The disagreements we have about where to go next on acquisition reform are about authorities, and we don’t think this NDAA goes quite far enough.”

Murray insisted the chief’s newly-asserted role in acquisition had not created an adversarial relationship with the office of the assistant secretary for acquisition, the civilian position that’s traditionally held most of the Army’s procurement authorities. The current assistant secretary, Katrina McFarland, regularly attends meetings to discuss the future of programs with senior uniformed leaders and has been eager to cooperate, he said.

But Lt. Gen. Michael Williamson, McFarland’s top military deputy and the chief of the Army Acquisition Corps, said additional proposals the Army sent to Congress last week requesting further acquisition reforms are likely to cause “healthy tension” between the Army and civilian oversight offices within the office of the secretary of Defense (OSD).

In a congressionally mandated report, the Army asked for “delayering” measures which would reduce the oversight role of OSD offices like the office of Developmental Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) and the office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE). Officials argued that the Army is perfectly capable of generating its own cost estimates, performing operational tests and conducting analyses of alternatives.

For many Army programs, officials said, duplicating those processes at the OSD level only serves to slow the acquisition process and contravenes the “customer” role Congress just carved out for the service chiefs, since they have no voice in the higher-level Pentagon oversight process.

“In many cases, you have Army-only programs — the things we’re building only for soldiers — that still have significant OSD oversight and reviews,” Williamson said. “We believe these are Army decisions and that we should bear the risk of having that capability or not. We’re all big boys and girls. Give us a little running room and let us demonstrate that we’re not going to make bad decisions.”

Murray said the Army is not asking for an outright exemption to acquisition oversight from higher-ups within DoD. The Army believes some of the current layers make sense for large programs, particularly when they impact more than one military service and have good reason for being funneled through the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System, which governs multi-service acquisitions.

“We’re not saying we should disband CAPE or DOT&E, we’re just saying there needs to be some discussion about where the cutline lies,” he said. “We’re not asking to completely opt out of what OSD has done and continues to do, but in some areas you need to trust the person you’ve placed in charge. As Gen. Milley has said numerous times: if he screws it up, fire him.”

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