Seeking a Cheap Defense

, Heather Latham, Leave a comment

On March 26th, three panelists met at a Heritage Foundation event. They discussed the new Levin-McCain legislation. According to a press release on Levin’s website, “[t]he bill would address the unreasonable cost and schedule estimates, unrealistic performance expectations, immature technologies, and repeated program changes that have led to explosive cost growth and costly schedule delays on so many of our major defense acquisition programs.”

General Dennis Reimer was one of the panelists and a former chief of staff for the United States Army. Reimer said, “We know what the issues are… There have been about 250 studies or papers or issue papers or publications put out on acquisition reforms since Goldwater-Nichols in 1986, and one more study probably is not going to make a bit of difference.” However, he agreed that “[t]here’s a need to change the acquisition system.”

Reimer said that although “it has produced wonderful equipment…we don’t do it as efficiently as we should. He said that there are two main reasons why the system needs to change: First, “When Goldwater-Nichols was created in 1986, we were in a threat-based force… and that was pretty easy… Nowadays you…can’t do that. You’re in a capabilities-based force, and so the acquisition system has to recognize that and I think needs to be changed to do that.” He said “[t]he second reason is that we are facing an economic crisis, and we have to deal with that. We cannot afford to have as…inefficient [a] system as we have today and still get the most bang for the buck.”

Reimer argued that the current system has three parts: “requirements determination”, “a budgeting part”, and “a program execution part.” He suggested “that all three of them need fine-tuning. But…there is not a single point of failure. This fails as a system…we’ve got to fix the system as opposed to applying individual fixes to things that really don’t work.”

Baker Spring, the F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy at The Heritage Foundation said that Congress’ ability to “second guess programs, usually with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight” is unfair and expensive. He asked, “ What is the cost of this? The cost of it in the end is really what I call the risk-averse mentality in defense acquisition. It’s that ‘no program may fail on my watch,’ and the result of that is layers of bureaucracy… In the end of the day you find that that itself costs not just a lot of money, but also it represents an incredible opportunity cost.”

Spring argued that the U.S. needs to get away from the “one-size-fits-all/all-rules based acquisition process.” He made four suggestions:

1. “We cannot reduce modernization budgets.”
2. “Another round of industry consolidation is…equally unwise.”
3. “Congress needs to restrain itself…It needs to do what is really best for the overall defense of the country.”
4. “The defense acquisition process.. is probably overregulated—not underregulated.”

Heather Latham is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.