On March 29th Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) shared his latest thoughts on defense budgeting in a visit to RAND, reiterating his established position that this debate is likely to continue well past next January and updating his ideas on where savings might be possible. One very understandable and widely-held frustration got special attention:
We also have to do something about the tyranny of the program of record. We put out this endless list of requirements, create a program of record, and then that is all we can do. Meanwhile, the rest of our fast-paced, innovative, rapidly changing world is moving all over the place…
You could go over to the Pentagon and you would, without any trouble, run into ten people who would go “Yes, that’s absolutely right. That is exactly what we have to do.” It’s not happening. Ok? I can’t say for sure why it’s not happening. I do not have a PhD in Pentagon bureaucracy. I don’t know of too many people who do, I can’t say for sure.
PhD’s in Pentagon bureaucracy are hard to come by, but if anyone has one, it’d be David Packard, co-founder of Hewlett-Packard and former Deputy Secretary of Defense. Packard’s ability to apply business acumen in managing the Pentagon is legendary and, while he passed away long ago, his ideas are still relevant. Among the best is his 1986 Packard Commission Report in which he explained “why [faster, flexible, fiscally-disciplined acquisition] is not happening.” This dissection of the “goldplating” of military requirements, from the emphasis on “purity” at the beginning to the Service and Congressional parochialism in execution, is two pages well worth reading.
We know, and have known, why defense acquisition encounters these issues, and there’s no shortage of recommendations to handle them. But it was our own Gordon Adams that pointed out in 1981 how the Iron Triangle of defense acquisition satisfies each of the participants while still producing a result that many find unsatisfactory. In the absence of a panacea, which almost certainly doesn’t exist, Michele Flournoy and Clark Murdoch may have characterized it best: “If Sisyphus had a job in the Pentagon, it would be acquisition reform.”