No matter how much makeup we put on the federal procurement system (pig), the underlying animal is still a pig

Federal Procurement System: Pigs and Makeup

As I wrote this piece, the United States Air Force was sponsoring a conference on innovation.  The meeting was held in Las Vegas and those attending were folks who can make a difference in the acquisition of war fighting material for our front line warriors.  The reports I received on the meeting were encouraging, but I have horrible memories of countless meetings, conferences and consortia dealing with exactly the same set of issues I first encountered over 30 years ago when I was assigned for duty in the Pentagon.  I suspect, however, that the bureaucracy, legal structure and influence of special interests probably pre-dated my first encounters with the Leviathan known as the federal acquisition system.  Upon cursory investigation, one is struck by how little things have changed.  In fact, one might advance the notion that things are much worse today.

The defense federal acquisition system, has become more hind bound, litigious, bureaucratic and inefficient

This current burr under my saddle started innocently enough three years ago in a Beverly Hills hotel.  The Trump campaign team had landed in Los Angeles to prepare for the Republican Party debate to be held on the Reagan ranch.  Early one morning, an individual who had made contact with the campaign was due to come in for a meeting with me.  He arrived promptly on time and then proceeded to outline a series of initiatives he thought would benefit the campaign and the administration if our candidate were to win.  He sought nothing from the meeting other than to leave a placeholder for some very good ideas concerning technology and this nation’s warfighters.  The fellow with whom I was meeting was a soon-to-be-retired Marine fighter pilot (with whom I could relate easily) who looked like he could still pose for the recruiting poster.  From that meeting on, he volunteered his time and resources to doing all he could to make sure our warfighters were getting the best available equipment and information so that their lethality—and security—would be optimized for battlefield conditions.  My buddy T-Mac became a regular in my countless meetings across the country, all the time volunteering and not taking a dime in support or compensation.  What we found in our collaboration has led us to a great deal of frustration, and now is the time for us to blow the whistle on several issues.  No matter how much makeup we put on the federal procurement system (pig), the underlying animal is still a pig.  In other words, the federal procurement system must change or our warfighters will continue to be shortchanged, under-armed and vulnerable.

The federal procurement system, in particular the defense federal acquisition system, has become more hind bound, litigious, bureaucratic and inefficient.  Lawyers and bureaucrats are the key decision makers and not warriors and trained acquisition officers.  There is little real competition for procurement contracts because the largest corporations have the economies of scale to withstand the horrific procurement system that mid-tier and smaller companies cannot overcome.  The barriers to entry—cooked into the procurement stew—make meaningful competition (and timely delivery) almost impossible.  One might understand how this system might be beneficial when one is talking about the next cruiser, fighter or main battle tank.  It makes absolutely no sense when it comes to areas where the cycle time for technical advances is weeks, not years.  Thus, one should be able to place the best technology in the hands of our warriors in a timely manner.  Examples of outdated technology being procured because the system takes three years to complete instead of three months are legion.  The hoops to jump through and boxes to check along the way seriously limit the technologically advanced tools available on the front lines.

 Fixing the horrible federal procurement systemNot to throw anyone in the White House under the bus, but it is hard to find evidence that the President’s Office of American Innovation has done very much to help fix the system.  The perception is that a bunch of rich guys sitting around a conference table in Washington is good enough to get people thinking about ways to fix the horrible federal procurement system.  To date, there is little to indicate that anything has been accomplished.  Three of the original six members of this task force are no longer in the White House so one wonders if, given all the other things going on around the country and the world, anything is really likely to come out of this initiative.  Unfortunately, the halls of many a federal building are filled with the smelly, rotting carcasses of good ideas.  Further, one should not trust anything that comes out of Silicon Valley, given the rampant animus shown for this administration and the ridiculous price points one encounters when buying their products.

There are things that can be done to change the system that cost taxpayer’s national treasure and warfighters their blood.  The first, and perhaps most difficult change, is to seek and install leaders into procurement organizations.  In the three years that T-Mac and I banged around DC on behalf of the campaign and the administration, the most prevalent deficiency in government was leadership.  Why is leadership so important?  Because leaders are needed to transform organizational cultures and systems to meet mission demands.  Leaders who have the courage and the will to stand up to the deep state, special interests and bureaucratic inertia are hard to find and even harder to get confirmed in positions that matter (on this point, I have flight test data).  One would think that Congress would be all over this, but special interests fund their campaigns and it is not in the interest of special interests to change the competition equation.

Second, federal agencies need to pilot programs that squelch “lowest cost, technically acceptable” procurement policies.  Procurement criteria should certainly be based on technical requirements, but value to the warfighter, timeliness, scalability, etc., should also be considered.  Small and mid-tier companies that have demonstrated agility should be given special consideration in these procurements.

Best equipped, best trained and most capable military the world has ever seen

Third, the Department of Defense should narrow the number of weapons systems being sought and make the ones that are in the pipeline or are about to enter the pipeline the best they can be.  One should learn lessons from past wars to reinforce this point.  The Germans in World War Two had hundreds of vehicle models, thus creating a great deal of variety, but also limiting the amount of interchangeability that would have simplified battlefield maintenance and logistics.  The Russians had fewer, simpler vehicles and mastered this concept during the Great Patriotic War.  This simple difference may have been the difference between winning and losing on the Eastern Front.

Finally, those charged with strategic planning for this nation’s security should do all they can to see into the future to build capabilities for the next war, not the last one.  Though these planners may not be able to nail down specifics of the next war, they can certainly look back in history to gain the sound, time-proven principles that would inform their efforts.  Winston Churchill often mused that for one to see into the future, one should look back in history.  The further one looks back, the better the vision of what is to come.

My buddy and I are going to stay on this topic until we see some movement that is meaningful.  Our generation is out of uniform, but our children and grandchildren are stepping up, so we need to do all we can to make sure they are truly the best equipped, best trained and most capable military the world has ever seen.  Until next time.