Tag: procurement

After-Action Report on Cato’s Panel on the Future of the Navy Surface Fleet

Yesterday’s event on the U.S. Navy was a big success and generated a vigorous discussion. Ben Freeman from POGO spelled out his concerns about the littoral combat ship, specifically the Freedom (LCS-1) (documented here and here) and CBO’s Eric Labs raised a few additional ones pertaining to the program as whole. Under Secretary of the Navy Robert Work delivered an impassioned defense of the LCS within the context of the entire fleet design, drawing on examples from history to demonstrate how the Navy learns and adapts. Consistent with past practice, Work is confident that the fleet will put the LCS through the paces—two completely different ships—and figure out how to use them.

It was refreshing to engage in a serious discussion among people who are committed to a Navy that is second-to-none, and who care enough to raise questions designed to make it stronger. I focused my remarks on the LCS’s operating characteristics, but especially on the decision to buy two different LCS types. The original plan was for the Navy to select just one. The advantage of having two ships, Work stressed, was that the Navy would learn about each vessel’s unique capabilities. The disadvantage, as I see it, is the loss of economies of scale, including in parts, logistics and training.

I do think it is important to move past the specific technical problems identified in both LCS-1 and LCS-2. These are the first ships in the class, and such ships always have their share of problems (I was assigned to a first-in-class ship, USS Ticonderoga, from March 1990 to May 1993, and we were working through some problems nine years after the ship was launched). The blogger Galrahn (aka Raymond Pritchett) at Information Dissemination last week tweeted that the information in the POGO and Aviation Week reports was all old news, but that hadn’t stopped members of Congress from calling for another investigation. Under Secretary Work stressed that he believes the problems have been addressed, or will be, and he is committed to making this program successful.

But this discussion about fixing problems and learning as we go along reminds me of a conversation that I had a few months ago with a person who believes we should increase military spending. This individual is advising Gov. Romney, who has pledged to boost Pentagon spending quite substantially—perhaps as much as an extra $2.5 trillion over the next ten years, by my estimates—if he is elected president.

While talking, I raised the subject of the LCS, not the first time that the subject has come up between us. He was nonplussed and claimed that the problems with the ship could easily be fixed. More specifically, he said “It is nothing that money can’t fix.” That is pretty much a direct quote.

Nothing that money can’t fix.

There are two problems with that statement. First, Mitt Romney might not become the 45thpresident of the United States in January 2013—the polls say that it is basically a 50-50 proposition that he won’t—and I think it highly unlikely that the Navy’s shipbuilding budget will grow substantially if he isn’t elected.

Second, I seriously doubt that the Navy’s shipbuilding budget will grow very much even if Mitt Romney is elected president, and it certainly won’t grow enough to obviate any discussion of trade offs between different ships. Even if the Navy is handed billions or tens of billions of dollars more for shipbuilding, it is still the case that every ship that we build, or every new one proposed, is competing against one another. There are always opportunity costs, even when the topline budget grows. Navy warships compete against aircraft carriers. Navy surface ships compete with submarines. And the Navy competes with the Air Force. And the Air Force and Navy compete with the Army, etc.

For now, the Navy has chosen the LCS over possible alternatives. But there are alternatives. Eric Labs authored a good study a few years ago looking at the Coast Guard’s national security cutters (.pdf), but stated yesterday that the NSCs would be more costly than the LCSs. In the paper, “Budgetary Savings from Military Restraint,” Ben Friedman and I suggested retaining the Perry-class frigates for a few more years while we develop a different ship, perhaps a new class of frigates or corvettes that could do many of the same missions that the LCS is expected to perform, and, we believe, at less cost. At yesterday’s forum, Under Secretary Work stated that we could not purchase a new frigate for less than $750 million. While I respect the Under’s expertise, I plan to spend some time over the coming months scrutinizing that claim.

New Paper Argues for Immediate, Practical Cuts in Military Spending

A new report published today by the Project on Defense Alternatives  argues for $17-$20 billion in immediate savings to the Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget. I co-authored the report along with Benjamin Friedman of Cato, and PDA’s Carl Conetta, Charles Knight, and Ethan Rosenkranz. Those savings come from 18 line items—personnel, weapons systems, and programs—that could be implemented quickly. Adjustments to U.S. national security strategy are not a prerequisite for these options, which are relatively low-hanging fruit.

The 2013 defense authorization bill will move to the House floor this week. Many members are expected to offer amendments, some allowing savings in the defense budget. During the debates that are about to ensue„ it is important to keep in mind just how large the defense budget has become. As our paper notes, the national defense base budget constitutes 52 percent of discretionary spending, separate from the war account. Since 2000, it has risen by 90 percent in nominal terms and 42 percent in real terms. If Washington is serious about addressing the nation’s massive fiscal challenge, many programs will have to be cut or reformed. The Pentagon should not be expected to bear all of the costs; other departments and agencies will also have to contribute. But there has not yet been a significant decline in the Pentagon’s base budget, contrary to what some have claimed.

The Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011 places an initial discretionary spending cap on National Defense for 2013 at $546 billion. Both President Obama’s request, and the House Republican’s budget exceed the BCA caps. In addition, the BCA requires $110 billion in spending cuts in January 2013 via sequestration, half of which need to come from DoD. Neither the White House nor Congress plans for that to occur; both sides hope to amend the law and achieve equal deficit reductions by other means. As it currently stands, though they disagree on how. Republicans want to cut other spending, Democrats to raise taxes. The options outlined in our paper could facilitate these negotiations, by revealing savings in the DoD budget that will not damage our national security.

The savings options in the report focus on reducing or curtailing:

  •  Assets and capabilities that mismatch or substantially exceed current and emerging military challenges;
  • Assets and capabilities for which more cost-effective alternatives exist;
  • Investments that are tied to the past, reflecting bureaucratic inertia or individual’s service interests, rather than current collective defense needs;
  • Acquisition programs that exhibit serious, persistent cost overruns, while failing to deliver  promised capability, and
  • Acquisition programs that are based on immature or unproven technologies.

Further savings are possible if we rethink our strategy, missions, and national security commitments. Ben Friedman and I have long argued this point. Until then, the options presented in “Defense Sense” are limited in scope in an effort to pave the way toward responsibly balancing national security ends, ways, and means.

Although I encourage everyone to look at the report, here are just five of the 18 cuts that policymakers should immediately consider:

  • Military personnel in Europe: Remove additional 10,000 military personnel by end of FY 2013; save $100 million in FY 2013 and $188 million per year once complete
  • Active-component military personnel: Reduce end-strength by an additional 10,000 personnel; save $400 million in FY 2013 and $860 million recurring annual savings once complete
  • Missile Defense: Focus on procurement and end-stage development on systems with proven, reliable, cost-effective capability (see report for details); save $2.5 billion in FY 2013
  • F-35 Joint Strike Fighter: Cancel USMC variant; buy equivalent numbers F/A-18 E/F; save $1.8 billion in FY 2013
  • Littoral Combat Ship (LCS): End procurement at 10 and seek alternative; save $2 billion in FY 2013

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

The New Pentagon Budget: Better, but Not Great

The changes announced in the Pentagon’s new budget guidance are, from my perspective, mostly good news, but woefully insufficient. They show how even limited austerity encourages prioritization among weapons systems that suddenly have to compete. A few more budgets like this and we’ll be getting somewhere.

The White House has not yet released the actual budget, but the Pentagon yesterday released a new document that explains the minor cuts in line for its slice. The document, unlike all the other defense strategy and guidance documents that have come out in recent years, sticks to plain English, avoids geopolitical gobbledygook, and tells you the budgetary impacts of its assertions. For that alone the Pentagon deserves some credit.

The document claims to be a guide to savings of $487 billion over 10 years. But you only get that figure by counting against past White House budget requests and their associated spending trajectory. We are saving just $6 billion from fiscal year 2012 to 2013, or 3.2% adjusted for inflation. If we leave out falling war costs, we have essentially frozen defense spending for two fiscal years (2011 and 2012), letting it grow at about inflation and then slightly slower, respectively. The Pentagon expects defense spending to grow at the rate of inflation or faster starting in fiscal year 2014, although their estimates of inflation are self-serving.

The new spending trajectory would cut about 8 percent from the base budget by the end of the decade. That’s from a budget that doubled in real terms from 1998 until 2012. And some of those savings are not really saved; they have simply migrated into the war budget. Keep in mind also that those savings are just a plan, one that is unlikely to last, particularly as presidents and Congresses change.

The biggest change in this budget is the beginning in a reduction of ground forces. The document says we will cut 80,000 troops from the Army and 20,000 from the Marines. The rationale is solid: we are probably not going to be committing large numbers of troops to another occupation of a populous country in revolt any time soon. Yet the cut leaves both forces with more personnel than they had prior to the expansion of ground forces that began in 2008. A real strategic shift away from occupational warfare would entail a bigger drawdown of Army and Marine personnel.

The document also reaffirms the administration’s decision to remove two army brigades from Europe, roughly halving our combat presence there. That’s good news given the absence of threat there and our NATO allies’ free-riding on U.S. taxpayers. But it only amounts to recommitting to a Bush administration plan. And we are unfortunately adding troops in the Philippines and Australia, at best a useless gesture that may encourage China’s military buildup.

The budget also takes a useful step in reducing the amount of tactical Air Force squadrons by six. Given the precision-revolution in targeting that makes each aircraft far more destructive and the increased Navy capability to strike targets from carriers, far bigger cuts in these forces are possible. Oddly, this reduction comes without a planned reduction in the purchase of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters.

Even worse, the Pentagon here reaffirms its commitment to the F-35B—the short-take-off and vertical landing version—taking it off “probation.” That version is meant to fly on amphibious landing ships to support missions where Marines attack shorelines. It’s hard to imagine such a mission where helicopters are insufficient for air-support and there is no carrier-based aircraft available to help the Marines, especially now that the Pentagon is again planning on operating 11 carriers.

The new version of the Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle is evidence of austerity forcing choices. The Pentagon now wants to cancel it because it is at least as expensive as the U-2 manned aircraft, which accomplishes similar tasks. This budget also usefully endorses the early retirement of some of our airlift capacity and tries to kill a new Army ground combat vehicle.

Another positive development is the request for two new rounds of base closures. This process requires legislation from Congress to form a Base Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC).

Still, the hard choices here are few. Many observers were hopeful that budget savings would include cutting our excessive means of delivering nuclear weapons. But while the proposal delays production of the new ballistic missile submarine and speaks vaguely of a “different” sort of nuclear arsenal, it supports the continuation of the triad. There is still hope on this front, however. The Air Force plans to build its next bomber initially without nuclear weapons delivery capability, adding it later in development. That amounts to dangling bait for budget cutters. Like the F-35B, the nuclear bomber has an unnecessary mission that a more austere budget would cause us to reconsider

So while the changes in this budget may be the first step toward a more restrained military posture, including perhaps a strategy of offshore balancing, they are a minor one. A true offshore balancing strategy would involve a greater shift of resources from the Army to the Navy. This budget, by contrast, seems unlikely to end the traditional budget split where each service gets roughly one-third of the base.

Unsurprisingly, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta used his press conference yesterday to push Congress to amend the Budget Control Act to avoid sequestration, the across-the-board cuts in the Pentagon’s budget due next January, which would roughly double the cuts outlined here. I have argued that these pleas seem to play into Republicans’ hand in the coming budget negotiations. Readers should also know that the Pentagon could avoid the “meat-axe” nature of sequestration (to use Panetta’s language) by budgeting at the level sequestration would accomplish, roughly $492 billion, or about what non-war defense spending was in 2007. That would let the Pentagon choose how to make cuts. The strategic insights guiding these minor cuts could be exploited to make those larger ones.

Cross-posted from the Skeptics at the National Interest.

Cooper vs. the Services

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.

Will the Military Industrial Complex Save American Foreign Policy?

Missing from most of the commentary on the Secretary of Defense’s big defense spending speech yesterday is the fact that the program cuts he proposed are largely a result of freezing the topline – keeping defense spending level (once you adjust for inflation) for the next decade.

For nearly a decade the country has really had two defense budgets – one for imagined conventional wars against states like China, another from nation-building, peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. The first budget requires a small ground force and lots of big platforms operated by the Air Force and Navy. The latter requires much larger ground forces, a few niche capabilities like intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, and less high technology wonders.

The current American love affair with counterinsurgency has resulted in a gradual shift of dollars from the conventional budget to the unconventional one. We are reversing the old idea that the American way of war is to replace labor with capital, or manpower with technology. We are becoming a land power first.  We have been increasing manpower in the Army and Marines – adding 90,000 new troops – and paying them way more (compensation per service member is up by almost half since 1998). Personnel costs are taking more of the budget.  And for more complex reasons, including health care costs, the operations and maintenance part of the budget – essentially the day to day cost of running the military – has also been growing fast when measured per service member.  (For details on these issues, read this testimony by Stephen Daggett of the Congressional Research Service.)

That was bound to squeeze the other big parts of the defense budget – research, development and procurement of new weapons systems. There is too much future cost in the budget for everything to fit without topline growth, so something had to give. Big weapons programs are where the most give is, if you don’t want to cut manpower.

That conflict was delayed while the budget topline grew, but now that it is flat, it erupts. The manpower intensive military that follows from our current policies is eating into the conventional military that delivers manufactoring jobs across the country and the high-technology dreams of our military leaders.

What will be interesting to see is whether this shift encourages those leaders and their friends on the Hill to take up the arguments that people like me have been making for years: that small wars are mostly dumb wars.  Preparation for these wars didn’t much hurt the military industrial complex before, now it does. 

An additional note: Gates’ criticism of the acquisition process was on the mark. Rather than blaming out of control weapons costs on the kind of contracts we write or crafty contractors, as the President seems to, Gates noted correctly that the trouble is the requirements process – what we want, not how we buy it.

Corruption Rewarded in Government

In Downsizing the Federal Government, I discussed some of the corruption surrounding former Senator Ted Stevens:

Another example of abuse engineered by Senator Stevens involves Alaska Native Corporations. Because of rule changes slipped in by Stevens, these shadowy businesses based in his state are allowed to circumvent normal federal procurement rules and win no-bid contracts. The result of such loopholes is that taxpayers do not get value for their money. For example, in 2002 a half billion dollar contract for scanning machines at U.S. border crossings was given to a native corporation with little experience in the technology, instead of established leaders in the field who were not allowed to bid.

The Washington Post did a good job of bringing the scandal of ANCs to light a few years ago. Did the spotlight on ANCs and connections to disgraced Senator Stevens convince Congress to move ahead with reforms? Hardly. From Government Executive today:

In fiscal 2008, companies owned by Alaskan regional and tribal corporations earned a record $5 billion in federal contracts, nearly 10 times the $506 million they earned in fiscal 2000 … ANCs earned two-thirds of the $24 billion they accumulated in prime contracts since fiscal 2000 through the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) Business Development program … Federal acquisition specialists said the data shows that the program, which was designed to help small and disadvantaged companies, has been undermined by a system that rewards companies that earn hundreds of millions in annual revenue.

In the story, Steven Schooner, of George Washington University, summed up the scam well: “The ANC program, as currently implemented, is a blunt instrument that distorts the procurement system, injects well-founded cynicism into the process, and reinforces the belief that government procurement is more about allocating political spoils than ensuring that the government receives value for taxpayer money.”

President Obama has promised procurement reform. He could start be eliminating ANCs and other forms of procurement favoritism.