- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 4, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

American taxpayers and our men and women in uniform are understandably skeptical when they hear promises to reform the Defense Department’s sprawling acquisition system, which often delivers major weapons systems to our troops years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.

Like Mark Twain’s famous observation about the weather, it seems everybody talks about it, but nobody does anything about it.

“Problems are deeply entrenched and have developed over several decades,” one study noted. “Too many of our weapons systems cost too much, take too long to develop, and, by the time they are fielded, incorporate obsolete technology.” That was the troubling diagnosis of a blue-ribbon commission - in 1986. Yet despite repeated attempts at reform, including more than 130 commissions and studies, the core problems persist.

Why, then, will our reform efforts be any different? For the first time in decades, the political and economic stars are aligned for a fundamental overhaul to the way the Pentagon does business.

In President Obama, we have a commander in chief who has made acquisition reform a priority. With our troops engaged in two wars and with the country facing record deficits and an economic crisis, the president understands, as we all do, that wasting billions of dollars on weapons ill-suited for today’s conflicts is an affront to our warfighters and taxpayers alike. So he has spoken clearly to those of us charged with fixing this problem: “No more excuses, no more delays.”

In Congress, we have a broad and bipartisan commitment to major reform. Led by Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat; Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican; and Rep. Ike Skelton, Missouri Demo-crat; Rep. John M. McHugh, New York Republican; Rep. Robert E. Andrews, New Jersey Democrat; and Rep. Michael K. Conaway, Texas Republican, Congress passed - by unanimous votes in both houses - the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act. The legislation was designed to bring greater oversight and accountability to the earliest phases of major acquisition systems. The president signed that legislation into law before Memorial Day, and the department is moving quickly to implement its provisions.

Also, in Robert M. Gates, we have a defense secretary determined to correct the Pentagon’s failure to quickly deliver lifesaving equipment and technologies to our forces in Iraq and Afghanistan - failures that led him to simply bypass the traditional procurement system in order to equip those forces with the unmanned aerial vehicles and explosive-resistant armored vehicles they needed. “There have been enough studies. Enough hand-wringing. Enough rhetoric,” Mr. Gates has said. “Now is the time for action.”

As a result, the Defense Department is aggressively pursuing major reforms of how we develop, test and field the weapons our troops need:

(1) To ensure we have a strong work force with the skills necessary to manage major systems, we’re increasing our acquisitions work force by 20,000 positions, including new cost estimators, systems engineers and program managers.

(2) To reduce the risk that costs will spiral out of control - and as Congress and the president have directed - we will rely more on independent cost estimates at the start and bring more discipline to the entire acquisition process.

(3) To better harness the creative and economic power of competition, we will have competing industry teams make prototypes of systems before choosing the best and most affordable ones to produce.

(4) To prevent programs from ballooning in cost and stretching in schedule, we will use more fixed-price development contracts. We will also institute new mechanisms to prevent endless “requirements creep” in which the desire for an ever-elusive perfect system can result in no system being delivered at all.

Of course, none of these reforms will work unless we are prepared to take a final step - reforming or canceling weapons programs that are not on track to provide our warfighters what they need when they need it. We have started making those hard decisions in our proposed budget for next year.

We’re reshaping the Army’s Future Combat System. We have halted the $87 billion program to develop a lightly armored ground vehicle so that future vehicles reflect the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are pushing out, throughout the Army, the new networking technologies and unmanned vehicles needed on the battlefield today.

Rather than take a business-as-usual approach to troubled programs - simply readjusting our expectations for cost, schedule and performance - we’ve canceled programs like the $19 billion Transformational Satellite program. This was a classic example of a promising but unproven exotic technology.

To avoid the inevitable schedule slips and cost overruns, we will instead buy satellites with more mature and proven technologies. Finally, we canceled the new presidential helicopter, the VH-71, which was years behind schedule with a cost that had doubled, to more than $13 billion.

In short, being tough-minded on acquisition reform is part of being serious about a strong defense. We have increased defense spending by 4 percent, and we are using those increases to put proven technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles into the field immediately. Indeed, every dollar we save through acquisition reform is another dollar we can devote to the capabilities our troops need today and tomorrow. This is what the American taxpayers expect and what our warfighters deserve.

William J. Lynn III is the deputy secretary of defense.

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