Kendall voluntarily loosens grip on some acquisition powers

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to reflect a Sept. 24 statement provided by the Pentagon.

In what some are calling a surprise move, Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall is relinquishing some of his power over major acquisition decisions to the military service secretaries.

A Sept. 11 memo states the military service secretaries will now have approval authority for certain programs to enter into the next phase of the acquisition process. The secretaries will also be accountable for cost, schedule and performance reporting for the programs.

Members of Congress, especially Senate Armed Service Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.), want DoD to give up some of its power over acquisition decisions as a means to curb cost overruns.

Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics

McCain added a provision in the 2016 defense authorization act that directed DOD to give some of his powers to the services secretaries and also to give greater acquisition authority to the military service chiefs.

The Pentagon noted it has sought input from the services on acquisition delegation as part of the Better Buying Power policy.

“As part of Better Buying Power’s ‘Eliminate Unproductive Processes and Bureaucracy’ initiative, for the last four years AT&L has asked the military services to recommend programs for delegation,” Maureen Schumann, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said in an email. The Pentagon acquisition office then works with the comptroller and other DoD components to decide if the program should be delegated to the services. DoD noted that Kendall’s actions were not influenced by the Senate defense authorization act.

Kendall has balked at the suggestion of giving the service chiefs more of a role in acquisition.

“We need to be careful about what we ask the service chiefs to do. They do not have expertise in technology or program management or testing. They don’t come from those communities, and we are a professional community,” Kendall said this spring.

McCain’s bill would decentralize acquisition decision-making to the military services to the “maximum extent practicable,” and require the chiefs to sign binding performance agreements on the requirements of their programs.

Kendall said lessening the civilian oversight the Defense Department places on acquisitions would be a mistake.

“There are enormous pressures within a military service to be optimistic about a program, and everyone who’s ever had my job has had to push back against those pressures,” Kendall said in May. “We’ve had a lot of disasters in acquisition because the services believed what they wanted to believe.”

For now the defense authorization act has passed both houses of Congress, but they have not come to an agreement in conference. President Obama has threatened to veto the bill over concerns about the way it funds the military.

The memo does not give the secretaries authority over all of their respective programs. The memo gives milestone decision authority only for certain programs:

  • The secretary of the Army has new powers over the Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2-Intercept, Block 1 only, the Chinook H-47 Block II and others.
  • The secretary of the Navy now controls milestones on the Virginia Class Submarine and Fleet Replenishment Oilers.
  • The secretary of the Air Force asserts power over the Space Fence Ground-Based Radio System Increment 1 and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency.

Justin Johnson, senior defense budgeting policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, said it is likely only certain programs were relinquished because they were service specific. McCain’s bill focuses on giving programs that are service-specific to the services and leaving joint programs to the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

What is particularly surprising, Johnson said, is that the White House released a position paper strongly opposing delegating any acquisition power to the services.

“Kendall sees some form of this [policy change] coming from Congress,” Johnson said. “Kendall is trying to at least start it in a way that he is comfortable with, rather than waiting for Congress to dictate its exact terms.”

Johnson said there is potential for more acquisition decentralization in the future.

“The move to decentralize more is healthy, so hopefully Kendall and Congress can work together on this and do it in a way that makes the whole system work better, “Johnson said.

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