By JEN JUDSON
During the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon aggressively beefed up its ability to get equipment to soldiers fast, setting up new organizations and processes to circumvent the sluggish traditional acquisition process.
But with the wars winding down and budgets shrinking, the Defense Department is worried it will lose those gains and is calling on Congress to help.
“How do we keep the ability to move money rapidly that was hard fought and painstakingly won in this conflict?” asked Andrew Hunter, special assistant to Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition official, at a symposium this week.
The Defense Department has made its case to Congress that it needs flexible spending accounts to buy things rapidly, but it is facing “some reluctance,” he said.
”The power of the purse is the chief power the Congress has,” Hunter added. “It is reluctant to take an approach to funding that they perceive is eroding, in any way, that power.”
For Congress, it’s not just about power — it’s also about oversight. Some charge that giving the Pentagon more flexible spending accounts amounts to giving them a slush fund that can be used for a much more wide-ranging set of needs.
Over the past decade, the Pentagon has set up myriad organizations to address urgent needs, from the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell to the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization.
Congress has been “sensitive and sympathetic” to the Pentagon’s efforts, Hunter said.
It has approved separate funds for rapid buying, including the Iraqi Freedom Fund, the Overseas Contingency Operations transfer fund and a Joint Urgent Operational Need fund. In the case of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, blast-proof trucks urgently needed to protect soldiers from roadside bombs, Congress authorized about $20 billion in spending.
But in recent years, some of these funds have been terminated. When combat operations in Iraq ended in 2011, so did the Iraqi Freedom Fund. The Pentagon is done buying MRAPs, and that account too has been closed.
“Some sources of funds we have relied on in the past,” Hunter said, “are gone or substantially reduced in size.”
Congress is also putting pressure on the Pentagon to stop relying on its large wartime funding account and move any leftover programs into its base budget.
Lawmakers are cutting some of the organizations’ funding — or declining to fund them at all. Three out of the four defense committees cut the Pentagon’s fiscal 2015 request of $115 million for JIEDDO to $65 million and all but House appropriators moved the funding into the wartime spending account, suggesting they expect the organization to go away at some point. The Pentagon, on the other hand, has made plans for JIEDDO to cut its staff but expand its scope so that it remains relevant.
Congress also agreed to the Pentagon’s request to establish a JUON fund for urgent requests — but hasn’t put any money in it. The Pentagon originally sought $200 million for the account, but lowered its request to $20 million in fiscal 2015. Only the Senate Armed Services Committee has authorized the funds for 2015.
“We haven’t convinced Congress to appropriate money to the fund,” Hunter said. “We have partially made the sale, we haven’t fully made the sale.”
The need for flexible funding for rapid buying is a tough case to make, said retired Army Col. Peter Newell, who previously headed the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force. Trying to address urgent needs on the battlefield typically means buying things that might be a bust, which he said isn’t generally welcomed by lawmakers or the Pentagon.
”The darker side of innovation means that you are going to spend money on things that don’t work,” he said
Hunter acknowledges that Capitol Hill has tried to help out, giving the defense secretary the authority to spend up to $200 million to rapidly buy equipment, if there aren’t other funds available. A spokesman for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Congress “already provides DoD with considerable budget flexibility.”
But the Pentagon is seeking more money. Hunter said the Defense Department needs a larger fund because “we don’t really have any other tool that can solve this problem.”
In the meantime, he said the Pentagon has been relying on what’s known as reprogrammings — requests to Congress to move money to more urgently needed areas — but would benefit from a standing fund for rapid buying.
A “modest flexible fund really becomes useful where I don’t have to go and take money away from [one program] in order to do something that is important in another area,” Hunter said.
Lawmakers remain concerned that oversight will become tough and the Pentagon might apply rapid acquisition dollars to other areas.
David Berteau, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it’s hard to track the Defense Department’s success rate in rapid acquisition spending, but he said the Pentagon should continue to have access to these dollars.
“Congress needs to be patient here,” he said.