The DoD’s procurement process has been described as the backbone for developing the nation’s military capability. While the word “procurement” typically implies the process in which goods or services are obtained, in the case of national security practitioners it is a bit different.

Is the System Broken?

There is the old saying, “if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it,” and by most accounts it could seem that the DoD’s procurement process is working. However, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the chair of the House Armed Services Committee, recently called out the DoD in an editorial for DefenseNews.

“The U.S. Department of Defense has spent tens of billions of dollars over the last 25 years on weapons systems that simply have failed to deliver as planned,” Smith wrote. “These systems have wound up way over budget and have been either delivered exceptionally late or canceled outright after the DoD spent billions of dollars on them. Many of the programs that survive to completion, after long delays and cost overruns, have not delivered the capabilities initially desired and promised.”

Smith was especially critical of the Pentagon’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, a fifth-generation aircraft that was meant to serve the needs of the United States Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy by being produced in three unique variants.

The issue hasn’t just been its procurement, but the fact that the operation cost of the F-35A – the Air Force’s conventional takeoff and landing model – is $38,000 per flight hour, and remains unable to achieve the rate of the $25,000 an hour currently promised. Smith further warned that the complexity of the repairs and maintenance of the aircraft’s engines are so great that there is a real danger that 43% of the global F-35 fleet will not have serviceable engines by 2030.

Big Problems Across the Services

It isn’t just the F-35 that House Armed Services Committee member took aim at in his op-ed. He noted that the DoD has faced similar problems with the Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle, the DDG-1000 (USS Zumwalt) guided missile destroyer, and the canceled Future Combat Systems (FCS) program.

In the latter case, the FCS was described by the U.S. Army as the “most ambitious and far-reaching modernization” program since the Second World War. Between 1995 and 2009, $32 billion was expended on the program and now more than a decade after it was canceled there is nothing to show for it.

The Army is still exploring options to replace the Cold War era M1 Abrams main battle tank (MBT) and Bradley Fighting Vehicle. The Bradley replacement program serves as another notable example of multiple starts and stops where little to no progress has been made.

Smith didn’t pass all the blame on the military however.

“Members of Congress, the Pentagon and defense contractors all bear some responsibility for this challenge, and we all must make changes to address it. I know it is complicated. We are not just making simplistic widgets here. But I also know we can and must do better,” he added.

Calls for Competition

In his editorial, Smith suggested “competition is a key component of improving the situation,” and he further warned that once a contractor is awarded a contract, it can become “too big to fail,” which “can put taxpayers in a bad position.”

However, Smith admitted that competition is not always possible on every aspect of these systems – and he noted that it isn’t possible to build two different F-35s.

Yet, the Navy did build two distinct versions of its littoral combat ship (LCS) including the Freedom-class, designed by Lockheed Martin and built by Marinette Marine in Marinette, WI; and the Independence-class, which was designed and built by Austral USA in Mobile, AL.

Instead of solving a problem by offering two versions and creating competition, the warships proved to be ill-suited to the changing demands of the Navy in the 21st century. That is why less than fifteen years after entering service the first two of the warships – the lead vessels of each class – will be retired later this year.

Likewise, competition has not resulted in a replacement for the M2 Bradley, as last year the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle (OMFV) program was ended after a disqualification left just one entrant in the competition.

Procurement Defined

The term, “procurement” is used as a specific title within the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and defense appropriations legislation. The procurement process is also governed by the policy and principles of the DoD directive 5000.01 “The Defense Acquisition System.”

It states, “The acquisition and procurement of DoD weapons and information systems must be consistent with all applicable domestic law, and the resulting systems must comply with applicable treaties and international agreements (for arms control agreements, see DoD Directive (DoDD) 2060.01), customary international law, and the law of armed conflict (also known as the laws and customs of war).”

The system is also divided into three man processes that include: The Defense Acquisition Process, which manages the development and procurement of DoD weapons systems; the Joint Capability Integration Development System (JCIDS), which was established by the Joint Chief of Staff to assess and resolve gaps in military joint warfighting capabilities and control the requirements generation process; and the Planning, Program, Budget and Execution (PPBE) process, which the DoD uses for strategic planning, program development, and resources determination for current and future warfighter programs.

As a January 2021 Congressional Research Service report noted, “Procurement appropriations title provides funds for non-construction related investment costs—the costs to acquire capital assets, such as an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter aircraft or a Virginia-class submarine. (Investment costs are distinguished from expenses—the costs of resources consumed in operating the department, such as food and fuel.)”

Procurement Vs. Acquisition

While procurement doesn’t include the operating expenses, there is confusion in that it isn’t just about obtaining something “new.” For that reason, procurement shouldn’t be confused with acquisition. The DoD uses procurement appropriations to obtain various categories of material including “new military hardware,” which can include new ships, aircraft and other items; but it also includes upgrades to existing equipment, including service life extensions and or remanufacturing programs.

Additionally, procurement includes purchasing of the weapons and ammunition, as well as all spare parts and repair parts. Moreover, Congress appropriates money for defense procurement under a policy of full funding, which requires Congress to fund the entire procurement cost of end-items in a single fiscal year even though related work may span many years.

This is why in a handful of cases, programs are procured utilizing incremental funding, where a system’s cost can be divided into two or more annual portions, or increments. Incremental funding has principally been used to procure certain ships and submarines – which can take years to build.

Better Use of Tax Dollars

Smith didn’t actually suggest ways in how the procurement process can be fixed, but stressed that it must be addressed.

“The department is always in pursuit of capabilities for the future — systems and technologies that simply do not exist yet — to maintain our advantage. It is easy, therefore, for industry to make lofty and unattainable promises on cost and schedule while disdaining competition for contracts, placing the DoD, lawmakers and the American taxpayer in an untenable situation,” he wrote. “We can and must make better choices to be better stewards of taxpayer dollars.”

 

 

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Peter Suciu is a freelance writer who covers business technology and cyber security. He currently lives in Michigan and can be reached at petersuciu@gmail.com.