By Christian Davenport
The costs of the Pentagon’s major weapons systems have ballooned nearly half a trillion dollars over their initial price tags, and the 80 programs have average schedule delays of more than two years, according to a report released Wednesday.
The report by the Government Accountability Office came during a congressional hearing in which senators from both parties vented about continued cost overruns, billions of dollars wasted when contracts are canceled and a system that is plagued by a high level of turnover that prevents anyone from being held accountable.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) listed a series of failed programs, including the attempt to replace the fleet of presidential helicopters, saying they were examples of “really unacceptable cost overruns we’ve seen in the past, and apparently a failure to get a lot of it still under control.”
For decades, Congress and the Pentagon have struggled with creating a more efficient system for buying weapons, tanks and airplanes, with limited success. In its report, the GAO noted that “too often we report on the same kinds of problems today that we did over 20 years ago.” But now, the renewed efforts, underway in both the House and Senate Armed Services committees and at the Pentagon, come as spending is tightening, which officials say gives an added urgency.
“We are going to have flat defense budgets as far as the eye can see, and the problems we’re trying to deal with around the world are not flat,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), who is leading the effort in the House, said in a recent interview. “So the only way to reconcile those two trends is to try to get more defense value out of the money we spend.”
During the hearing, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said that there have been notable successes, the most significant being the 2009 weapons-acquisition reform law, which has helped save $23 billion. But Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the Pentagon’s track record in buying IT systems “remains abysmal.”
Frank Kendall III, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the committee that during his 40 years working in procurement, “I’ve seen any number of attempts to improve defense acquisition. My view is many of the things we have tried have had little discernible impact.”
Fixing the problems that plague defense acquisition “isn’t as easy as many people think,” he said. But he said there has been improvement in recent years and pointed to the Pentagon’s Better Buying Power program, which follows “a process of continual improvement that focuses on the areas in which the most progress can be made.”
He also said that the process is ultimately “a human endeavor” and that there needs to be more focus on providing incentives and training for contracting officers.
Personnel turnover has been an especially acute problem, the GAO found. Since the position of the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics was created in 1986, the average tenure has been 22 months, according to the report.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapons program in the Defense Department’s history, has had six program managers since 2001.
Part of the problem, many senators lamented, is the way the armed forces shuffle workers in and out of contracting positions. While it is okay to be stationed temporarily at some jobs, which allows service members to gain valuable expertise in different areas, senators said, acquisitions is so complicated that it should be staffed with specialists who stay for long periods.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) called the temporary assignments “ludicrous.”
“There’s no way you can have this many program managers and actually get at what you want to do,” she said. “You need continuity. You need expertise. You don’t need a new guy every 18 months.”
Michael Sullivan, the author of the GAO report, told the committee that the contracting workforce lacks “training and business experience and career opportunities.” And he said that the “tenures of program managers are so short and the length of our product developments so long that there is little accountability.”
Contractors also have a relationship with their Pentagon counterparts that is “altogether different from a classic free market,” his report said. The Pentagon is a single customer with very few prime contractors on which to rely in each industry. The Defense Department and the contractor often develop products together, making the collaborations harder to walk away from.
“The department’s relationship with industry forces less competition, more regulation, and once a contract is awarded, it places considerable power in the hands of the contractor,” Sullivan said.
Toward the end of the hearing, Moshe Schwartz, an acquisitions expert with the Congressional Research Service, stacked the procurement regulations on the table next to him to show how cumbersome the process can be. The papers, some in binders as thick as phone books, stood almost two feet tall.
“If you ever attempt to break Strom Thurmond’s record for continuously holding the floor for the longest period, I’m happy to lend this reading material to you,” he told the senators.