- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

The defense review team to reshape the national structure for the 21st century must include the warriors who have operated the weapons in wartime conditions. Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham's idea of establishing a collective military view from those who have seen combat as a base to overlay the ideas of the Pentagon think tank is a thoughtful and cautious approach to shaping national security for the future. All are pleased that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has seen the wisdom of this approach.

What about procurement reform? Red tape?

There has been a lot said about reforming the defense procurement process. Bills have been passed by the Congress to do so, including the federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the federal Acquisition Reform Act. For the most part the legislation has resulted in changes, but those changes are not enough for the 2001-and-beyond time frames. The acquisition work force has shrunk and is aging significantly to the extent that at confirmation hearings for the current secretaries of the military departments, it was stated by Sen. Susan Collins that 50 percent of the Defense Department's civilian acquisition work force is going to be eligible to retire in the year 2005. An aging work force without significant input and a significant amount of funds for education and training means only one thing competency is in jeopardy and such is visible today. We do not have to wait until 2005 to realize we have less than competent acquisition people to match up with the competency in industry. That means that the leverage at the negotiation table for major weapon systems and minor weapon systems and all support and services transitions from the government side of the table to the industry side of the table. This is unacceptable to the taxpayer. The numbers of honorable acquisition people in industry looking out for industry's bottom line must be matched with an equal number of honorable civilian acquisition people looking out for the taxpayers' bottom line. Navy Secretary Gordon England during his confirmation hearings stated in his prepared statement that:

"The unique Department of Defense acquisition system, with its myriad rules and regulations, needs to be simplified and streamlined. It must and will come more into alignment with commercial practices. The department will be proactive in supporting the undersecretary for acquisition in implementing these changes. Second, layers of bureaucratic decision-making, with their inherent time delays, will be streamlined. Third, 'spiral development,' the fielding of available technology with planned evolution to a final configuration, will further speed the introduction of new technology into service. Finally, if confirmed, I will strive to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Department of Defense and [Department of Navy] business practices. While the Navy Department serves a national purpose with overarching goals well beyond the commercial objectives of markets and profit, many commercial business practices are still applicable. Over the past few years, it appears that the gap between government and industry business practices has widened, with two negative consequences: First, inefficient departmental processes have led to ineffective results, generally due to unaffordable solutions. Second, commercial companies have largely deserted the Department of Defense while traditional defense companies have started to diversify into commercial business. By improving business practices we should be able to shift more dollars into combat capability and expand our buying power through increased competition."

If this all means that Mr. England will reform the Navy procurement process so that it would be "honest, forthright and fair," then hallelujah. This will be a tough job because of the entrenched multi-layered bureaucracy that has developed over the years. As far back as the Gulf War, we saw emergency contracts that even under national strategic priorities took longer than six months to award contracts when the performance of those contracts under hostile bare base desert conditions was performed in 90 days. Even as recently as today's war in Afghanistan the lead times to award contracts has not lessened and, in fact, are taking longer on average to award. This process needs streamlining and reform.

Why not include Navy and other military procurement processes, service-specific regulations and department acquisition supplements in the strategic review of defense needs for the 21st century? The Gulf War is over, but the war against terrorism is not. We need change, and commercial practices may be an acceptable approach to modernization, reform and streamlining. Furthermore, we must cut through red tape.

Reviewing and reshaping the national defense structure for the 21st century is essential. Meanwhile, American small business is desperate for Mr. England to finish the job by reforming the acquisition system as well.

Bill Alexander is a former chief deputy Democratic majority whip (1969-93) and a former member of the House panel on military construction appropriations.

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