DoD loses argument with Congress over weapons testing requirements

The Defense Department’s independent weapons tester could be getting new rules despite the Pentagon’s contention that more oversight isn’t necessary.

Lawmakers approved a contested provision recommending the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) take into account any unnecessary increases in program costs or schedule delays when conducting his oversight duties.

This provision was part of  the final version of the fiscal  2016 Defense Authorization bill approved by the House Oct. 1 and by conferees from both houses of Congress Sept. 30.

The provision calls for DOT&E to consider private sector best practices with respect to oversight implementation when conducting tests.

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While the provision does not specifically require DOT&E to change anything, it may signal a push from Congress to solve the problem internally.

The root of the provision comes from the ever changing “Goldilocks” zone of testing. Before an item is delivered to troops it needs to be thoroughly tested so that it functions properly in a warzone. This is especially important when testing missiles and other weapons.

Some lawmakers, however, feel that DOT&E is too cautious in its testing, leading to acquisition program schedule and cost overruns, and further burdens on the taxpayer.

DoD has openly opposed the provision. DOT&E director J. Michael Gilmore reiterated the point in an Oct. 1 statement.

“Several studies, including the June 2015 Government Accountability Office study on DOT&E directed by the Joint Explanatory Statement to Accompany the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2015, have shown that such testing does not cause programmatic delays and cost overrun,” Gilmore said in the statement. “The value of such testing is abundantly clear when considering the alternative: discovering these problems for the first time in combat, when it is too late to correct them.  DOT&E has always recognized its responsibility to assure realistic testing is conducted while not causing unnecessary disruption to programs and will continue to do so, consistent with the 2016 NDAA.”

The GAO study Gilmore referred to looked at 42 programs over a four-year period that had significant disputes between DOD and DOT&E, which may have led to cost or schedule impacts.

“Acquisition programs and DOT&E have different objectives and incentives, which can potentially fuel tension between the two over what is needed to accomplish operational testing for programs,” the study stated.

But the study found that the tension is generally manageable and differences are usually resolved in a timely manner with modest adjustments.

A further in-depth look at 10 programs found that many of the disputes GAO reviewed were resolved in DOT&E’s favor with limited cost and schedule impacts to the programs. GAO also concluded that DOT&E had valid and reasonable substantive concerns about the testing for the cases reviewed.

The GAO report “came to the conclusion that the operational testing that we’ve done doesn’t drive significant cost increases and schedule increases into programs. In fact, what does [cause delays and overruns] are problems that arise in these complex systems, some of which we unfortunately find for the first time when we do operational testing, that the program managers and the acquisition managers themselves decide need to be fix and take extra time and resources to allocate to fixing,” Gilmore said during a June 28 speech.

Gilmore added that finding the “Goldilocks” zone is a matter of exercising good judgement, and he felt the GAO report reflected that his office did that. Most of the operational testing happens over weeks, sometimes months and testing does not drive the schedule of the program, he said.

Next Moves

President Barack Obama has threatened to veto the bill over its use of contingency funds to pay for base budget items like operation and maintenance. Democrats are calling the maneuver a “gimmick” to avoid the sequestration caps. The administration says using contingency funding for base budget items does not allow DoD and the military to plan for future years, since contingency funding is allocated each year.

If the President does veto the bill, many experts believe there are enough Democrats in the Senate to sustain the veto.

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