The Bush Administration came to office determined to reform the defense acquisition process. It took too long to get new hardware into the field, weapons were often out of date by the time they were fielded and the system was plagued with high costs and inefficiencies. Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld initiated a system of spiral development that seeks to shorten the time to field the first versions of new weapons systems. He also has tried to expand the use of commercial off-the-shelf components and systems, change the way the Pentagon pays for what it buys and reduce the size of the acquisition workforce.
It is one thing to fix what is broken in the acquisition system. It is quite another to allow parts of the system that work to be broken. Yet this is what is happening when it comes to competitive procurements. DoD conducts a competition, awards a contract to the winner and then the mayhem begins. Contractors, sometimes those who have lost in the competitions but in other cases new entrants into the fray, come forward with alternative designs to that which DoD has chosen. While these alternatives claim to provide improved performance or lower price, often they have not even been built; they are paper designs. Sometimes DoD or the Services get seduced by the promise of better or cheaper in the future and try to subvert the results of their own competitions.
One classic example of breakdown in the system is the Stryker medium-weight combat system. Not only was the Army’s competitive evaluation subject to careful scrutiny but also the system was required by Congress to undergo a second competition between the winner and one of the losing systems that simply repeated the results of the first. Opponents ran a smear campaign against the Stryker; all the charges levied were proven false. These actions were an attempt to overturn a competitive procurement.
Another example is the high-altitude/long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program. The winner, Global Hawk, beat 16 other designs in a rigorous and lengthy competition conducted by DARPA. It was intended to fill this requirement for all the Services. It has performed well over both Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet, one of the original losing competitors now is attempting to reenter the game with an entirely new design that it contends is merely a modification of an older model UAV. It is seeking to sell a single Service on its system. If this ploy is successful, it will mean that all the advantages of production scale and commonality associated with a single platform serving all the services could be lost.
Secretary Rumsfeld and the senior leadership of DoD need to exercise better control over the acquisition system. In particular, while they are fixing the broken parts, they need to prevent attempts to impair the parts that are working well. It is reasonable to revisit program awards where there are clear problems, but when the systems were selected fairly and are performing well, second-guessing undermines military preparedness.
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