By Col. Ken Allard
Apanel of defense-industry executives complained last week to a National Press Club audience about the defense budget cuts known as sequestration. Calling those reductions “irresponsible,” TASC CEO David Langstaff said sequestration would shatter “our ability to execute U.S. national security strategy.” That may well be the case.
Yet on the same day, the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester harshly criticized the Army’s costly data-mining system known as the Defense Common Ground System (DCGS). Rather than smoothly producing battlefield intelligence to hunt insurgents, even the new and theoretically improved version of DCGS was “not operationally effective, not operationally suitable and not operationally survivable against cyberthreats,” he said.
Despite its ineffectiveness, the American taxpayer has spent $2.5 billion on DCGS.
From a $900 toilet seat to DCGS, waste in Pentagon acquisition is a canonical and oft-told tale. It is as if we granted the Soviets a consolation prize for losing the Cold War by preserving their procurement system intact: five-year plans, Byzantine regulations and an elephantine development system from gleam in the eye to gestation. This doesn’t seem to be a problem — until you run out of other people’s money. Will sequestration finally force us to revisit an enduring American political dilemma?
The cozy relationships between Pentagon bureaucrats, defense contractors (including their lobbyists) and their Capitol Hill allies have long been known as the “Iron Triangle.” Until the defense reforms of the 1980s, each of the military services independently developed systems like DCGS, using separate clans of contractors, all located in someone’s congressional district. Interservice teamwork customarily was ignored despite great operational risks to information-age warriors. If Army or Navy systems needed to work together by sharing data, interoperability was achieved by procuring yet another system, engineered by yet another contractor — a perverse multiplier effect paid for by the American taxpayer.
After Desert Storm, Congress finally addressed defense procurement reform, a problem for which it bore heavy responsibility. Directing the staff charged with recommending those reforms, I realized that our first task simply was to identify the laws affecting the alleged procurement “system.” We eventually discovered no fewer than 800, governing everything from marine mammals to post-employment ethics. Each law also spawned untold multipliers: regulations, directives, instructions and military specifications. It was a wonder anyone working in defense acquisition could even get out of bed in the morning without violating one of them.
A canonical tale from Desert Storm shows just how inefficient the system had become. Just before hostilities commenced, the Air Force became aware that it urgently needed a commercial radio receiver. While the Air Force was willing to waive all military restrictions — and the supplier was willing to sell — the product was widely available from worldwide resellers. No one in the Air Force or the Pentagon could waive the standing legal requirement that the government must pay the lowest commercial price. In a global market, who could know that? There the impasse stood until an Air Force acquisition officer contrived an ingenious solution: The Japanese government was asked to buy the commercial radios, donate them to the Air Force and then write off the entire transaction as part of Japan’s contribution to the war effort.
Sobered by the bizarre spectacle of our allies rescuing us from self-imposed procurement nightmares, Congress passed landmark defense acquisition reforms in 1994. For the first time in history, the law created a standing government preference for commercial products and procedures. Not long after, I proudly addressed the new law’s achievements, only to confront a questioner who angrily insisted that the process of acquisition reform would be incomplete “until you shoot a few of those Pentagon acquisition bureaucrats for good measure.”
Almost 20 years later, it seems he may have had a point. Our long-suffering troops in the field agree that DCGS is a costly dud. They have been clamoring for Palantir, a cheaper, commercially available, user-friendly alternative that actually works. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Bloomberg News reports that Palantir has been a godsend during relief operations. Its commercial software has easily managed an army of volunteers, matching needs to skills and even enabling recovery teams to access geo-located satellite imagery. It works just as well in hastily thrown-together hurricane relief centers as in the back of an armored vehicle in Afghanistan — practically anywhere except the Pentagon.
In that strange, five-sided universe where entrenched bureaucrats die hard, commercial procurements are still regarded as fundamentally unnatural acts. Whatever its dilemmas, sequestration might provide a long-overdue wake-up call throughout the Iron Triangle. Because we have run out of money, we finally need to think more clearly.
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues. He was staff director for the Department of Defense Acquisition Reform Panel.