McCain pushes greater role for military service chiefs to fix acquisition

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his committee has more work to do before it draws up a broad acquisiti...

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said acquisition reform is his second-highest priority this year, and he intends to insert reform-oriented language into this year’s DoD authorization bill. The full substance of the provisions will not take shape until later, but he is sure of at least one thing: The uniformed chiefs of the military services need to be put back into the acquisition chain of command.

McCain did not specify the precise changes he has in mind, but any effort to reinsert the Joint Chiefs of Staff into the process would be a significant move, altering one of the cornerstones of the landmark Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. That legislation stripped the chiefs of their authority to make acquisition decisions and handed it instead to senior political appointees in the Pentagon, leaving the chiefs in charge of developing requirements.

In a hearing Wednesday, McCain told the current service chiefs that they should expect tough questions in the year ahead as the committee works toward a reform package.

“But I’ve already come to one conclusion, which is that the whole process requires your input in a much more meaningful fashion, and I think you all would agree with that,” he said. “If you’re responsible, you should play a much greater role in the process. That’s one of the conclusions that I think that we’re in agreement on, and that we will probably try to add to the NDAA.”

McCain and other senators spent much of the past year gathering input from acquisition experts to lay the groundwork for reform legislation. In a compendium of essays the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations published in October, a quarter of those 31 experts suggested a more robust role for the chiefs as one way to improve the department’s acquisition performance.

Growing chorus of support

For example, retired Adm. Gary Roughead, a former chief of naval operations, suggested the service chiefs should co-sign all decisions about the systems their services are buying, and that program managers should be accountable to the chiefs. Those steps, he wrote, would make the chiefs more accountable for the results the acquisition system delivers, and press them to make more realistic decisions about whether to trade off requirements for affordability.

And David Oliver, a former CEO of EADS and DoD’s second-ranking acquisition official in the Clinton administration, argued that stripping the chiefs from the procurement chain also removed their incentive to adequately train and develop their acquisition workforce.

“Without acquisition responsibility, the chiefs, who are responsible to maintain, train and equip combat ready forces capable of winning wars, naturally tended to lose focus on acquisition,” he wrote. “Thirty years and two wars later, guess where the chiefs have funneled officer talent? Have they devoted talent towards the areas for which the chiefs are personally responsible, or towards the one spot for which they are specifically not held accountable?”

For their part, the current chiefs don’t appear to have any problem with taking on more authority.

“The one thing that’s been frustrating to me is how little authority and responsibility I have in the procurement process,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said Wednesday. “What I have to do is try to use my influence as a four-star general to influence the process, but I have no authority inside of that process, outside of recruitments. When you’re in this position, you’ve been serving for decades, you’ve fought wars, you have some experience in what is needed and how we develop and procure items. And I’d like to see us in uniform get a bit more involved.”

Adm. Jonathan Greenert also expressed frustration with how little influence he, as the Navy’s top officer, has over his service’s acquisition decisions.

“We need to clarify the chain of command. There are too many people involved in the process,” he said. “If I say I need a thing, then it starts moving toward somebody building it, and there are a whole lot of people telling us, ‘So, this is what you really need.’ And I’m talking about in the Pentagon, just to get it out of the building. But we also need to be able to compromise. If I say it has to be this fast, do this greatness and I’m reaching hard, it can be quite expensive and the technology just may not be there. Cost and schedule need to become a much bigger factor in this process than it is today.

I think it ought to be a key performance parameter — that’s Pentagon- speak for, ‘If you breach this, you’ve got to go back and stop, take a pause and look at this again.'”

Readiness rebound limited

The acquisition conversation happened in the context of a hearing McCain convened to examine the consequences of sequestration, if the automatic budget cuts are allowed to stay in law for 2016.

The chiefs reiterated many of the same warnings they’ve been issuing for more than three years as sequestration has been turned on-and-off again. Each said they’d be unable to execute the current Defense strategic guidance under the funding levels in current law, and that DoD will propose a budget next week that would breach the caps.

But they also said a return to the caps the Budget Control Act prescribed would further exacerbate the training, readiness and modernization shortfalls that began when sequestration was first imposed in 2013.

At one point in 2013, Odierno said 90 percent of the Army’s brigade combat teams fell below acceptable readiness levels. A restoration of funding in 2014 and 2015 brought readiness levels up to 33 percent, but the Army still will be recovering from the 2013 cuts for several more years, even if it gets the budgets for which it’s asking.

“But if sequestration happens in ’16, we’ll be headed right back down to those numbers again,” he said.

Industrial base feeling effects

In the meantime, the Army is concentrating its training funds on a limited number of brigades so that those deployed to current missions will be sufficiently trained.

“So we’re saying, ‘OK, we’re going to take this amount of the Army, and we’re going to give you the money, and we’re going to train you to the highest level,’ which means the rest of the Army is training at a significantly lower level, which really concerns me,” Odierno said. “What I worry about is I’ve got to have some level of the force capable of deploying a no-notice contingency. We’re not funding the rest of the force. It affects morale, it affects capabilities, and it takes longer to recover from this.”

The chiefs also expressed worry about the civilian workforce. While none of them predicted another round of furloughs in 2016, they said that employees with critical skills who can find jobs elsewhere are increasingly choosing to do just that.

“When we did furlough folks, we lost a lot of engineers and artisans in our aviation community,” said Gen. Joseph Dunford, the commandant of the Marine Corps. “And right now, 50 percent of our F-18s are out of reporting, and we’re having a very difficult time recovering from the loss of maintenance and throughput capacity as a result of those furloughs.When we talk about trust and we talk about retaining high- quality people, predictability is very important. And I fear that some of those folks that were furloughed won’t come back because they do have other opportunities.”

They also pointed to significant concerns that another round of sequestration would further damage fragile parts of the industrial base that were impacted by the first edition.

Greenert said his service already is walking a thin line between the survival or failure of critical suppliers.

“We’re at the point in our shipbuilding plan where we’re about at the minimum level we need to do to sustain some vendors,” he said. “The good news is we are buying efficiently, but that all comes unraveled if you start dropping out ships [from our sustainment plans] here and there. People think this is all about the big primes. That’s not the concern. It’s the smaller or mid business people that make very specific and refined equipment. Over half of our nuclear industrial base is sole-source. We really, really need them. With this inability to plan, it can’t keep them open. And it is a deep concern, because you can’t bring that capability back fast.”


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