Congressman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) has a fairly radical proposal for reforming defense acquisition in Politico.
Cooper wants to put the military services’ acquisition staffs under the direct control of the Secretary of Defense. The idea is to liberate the staffs from the parochial perspectives that cause various pathologies in acquisition programs.
The oped implicitly blames large and consistent cost overruns in weapons programs on the services’ interests, which manifest in excessive requirements for platforms. For example, the Air Force’s religious attachment to the over-designed and thus wildly expensive F-22 has its origin in a peculiar self-image, one that sees the establishment of air superiority for strategic bombing as the Air Force’s main mission. You can tell a similar story about another contender in the Pentagon’s biggest white elephant sweepstakes: the Marine’s amphibious Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle.
Cooper is rejecting the more popular view that the trouble in acquisition is the lack of independent cost estimates and other failures in the contracting process. That technocratic view underlies the acquisition bill that just became law. Cooper is saying that the trouble is more what we want than how we buy it, and what we want is a consequence of the services’ power. To deal with that, you must either change the services’ conception of their interests (and note that such efforts are arguably underway, especially in the Air Force) or take power from them. He’s pushing for the latter.
The weakness in the oped is a failure to explain how moving the military’s acquisition personnel to OSD would change the incentives that cause officers to do their service’s bidding. They would still work for a service, after all, and face its promotion board. A more radical proposal would be to hand more power over acquisition to the civilians in OSD and remove redundant positions from the services.
Cooper also takes (another) shot at constant service shares – the tradition, dating to the Kennedy Administration, where the Army, Navy and Air Force all get consistent shares of the budget each year. That tradition stifles interservice competition and therefore innovation. Giving the lion’s share of defense spending to the ground forces would be a sensible outgrowth of our current defense strategy, which is manpower-intensive. The Navy and Air Force might then be forced to scramble for relevance, causing them to initiate many of the reforms to their procurement programs that Secretary Gates has proposed. (An even better tact would be to cut the defense budget massively but give more of it to the Navy, given that our current strategy encourages dumb wars).
Note that the suggestion to enhance service competition relies on decentralized institutions competing, whereas the main suggestion of the oped is to heighten the centralized authority of the Secretary. Whether these are contradictory ideas is academic, for now, because at least one is not going to happen soon. The service’s would go the mattresses to protect their control of their acquisition programs, and there is a no sign of a political constituency willing to pick that fight.