Acquisition Reform Requires Balance, Undersecretary Says
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2009 As the Defense Department reforms its buying process, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official seeks to strike a balance between improving the system and keeping it efficient.
Speaking to the NATO Allied Command Transformation Industry Conference here today, Ashton B. Carter, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said improvements to the Pentagon’s acquisition apparatus aim to better serve U.S. taxpayers and troops.
“In my position, it’s important for me to try to keep the balance between better controls, on the one hand, and continued effectiveness on the other,” he said. “We’re going to do better by the taxpayer, but we’re also going to do better by the warfighter at the same time.”
The Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act, which garnered unanimous support in the House of Representatives and Senate, sought to increase government oversight, save taxpayer dollars and spend defense funding more efficiently when President Barack Obama enacted it in May.
At the time of the signing, Obama echoed Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, saying that a dollar of wasted defense spending is a dollar not spent on supporting U.S. troops, preparing for future threats or protecting the American people.
“Secretary Gates, working with our military leadership, has also proposed a courageous set of reforms in our defense budget that will target waste and strengthen our military for the future,” Obama said. “In taking on this enormously difficult task, he's done a tremendous job.”
Carter, who assumed his current role in April, today reflected on his early days on the job when Gates described infighting at the Pentagon that could derail efforts to support troops downrange.
“[Gates] spent the first 18 months or so on the job finding that … things wouldn’t happen in support of the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan unless he personally showed an interest in it,” Carter said, joking that the onus to take personal interest has shifted from Gates to him.
One area related to reform that both Obama and Gates have attached importance to is export control, which Carter described as a “mysterious and obscure” set of criteria that can lead to arbitrary decisions on the manner in which U.S. equipment is exported.
“It’s a burden under which we all suffer when trying to work across boundaries,” Carter told the international audience.
Carter has also cited as a chief concern the need to balance today’s wars with tomorrow’s requirements. As top national security officials debate U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, Gates has committed to remain responsive to urgent needs there, an approach Carter endorsed today.
The acquisition chief mentioned rapid fielding of vehicles designed to protect troops from deadly roadside bombs – with the first wave of an influx arriving in Afghanistan last week. The mine-resistant, ambush-protected all-terrain vehicles -- known as M-ATVs – are a countermeasure to the deadly improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, that still cause the most casualties in the war.
The fielding of the vehicles, which are smaller and more maneuverable on Afghanistan's arduous terrain, came only three months after the contract was awarded.
Carter credited the free-flow of information and intelligence among NATO allies as one reason why such rapid procurement efforts have been effective.
“That’s been very productive to us and productive for our allies,” he said of the cooperation efforts.
The legislation Obama signed in May came after the Government Accountability Office last year examined 95 major defense programs and found cost overruns totaling $295 billion.
Another way Carter and other defense officials have suggested improving the acquisition system is by attracting more talent to the workforce.
Deputy Defense Secretary William J. Lynn III told Congress that a lack of critical skills is a major consideration while the department reforms its process for purchasing weapons and defense systems.
Ahead of Obama’s signing of the landmark legislation, Lynn said department officials want to increase acquisition jobs by 20,000 over the next five years, with associated funding factored into the Pentagon’s budget.
But defense officials advocating reform proposals often acknowledge the challenge in attempting to enhance a system as complex as defense purchasing, noting that nearly 130 studies of acquisition reform have been completed since World War II.
Carter today echoed Gates’ remark that there is no “silver bullet” that will solved all the systemic woes, yet he did strike a note of optimism, noting bipartisan support for reform.
“In this country, we are in a relatively fortunate situation because I have a president and a secretary of defense that are very interested in what I do,” he added. “They want me to do it better, but they’re interested in what I do, and that’s a great start.”