Sen. John McCainJohn Sidney McCainSenate's defense authorization would set cyber doctrine Senate Dems hold floor talk-a-thon against latest ObamaCare repeal bill Overnight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions MORE (R-Ariz.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, made headlines last year when he pushed through some of the most major changes to the defense acquisition system since Goldwater-Nichols. Over the past month, it’s become increasingly clear that Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wants to make his mark on military acquisition as well. 

Developing, procuring, and maintaining weapons systems is notoriously complex and, more importantly, expensive. Many attempts to reform the system have been ineffective or self-destructive. Moreover, projects like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the most expensive weapon system in history, do not inspire confidence in the military’s ability to equip itself for the 21st century. (The program took another hit this week, when Pentagon testers identified numerous software problems and warned against ‘block purchase’ of the airplane.)

ADVERTISEMENT
Into this mess stepped McCain. Reforms in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) included adopting commercial buying practices, increasing accountability, and empowering the service chiefs to determine their own requirements. Reactions to these reforms have generally been positive. New buying practices will hopefully allow DOD to procure ‘off-the-shelf’ systems, ranging from software for cybersecurity to drones, from nontraditional defense companies. The changes compliment Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter’s forays to Silicon Valley, where he hopes to expand the Department’s presence in an industry that’s historically avoided working with the military.

While DOD moves to implement the 2016 NDAA, Thornberry has quickly charged forward, hoping to make additional reforms to how the military acquires new systems. This year, he has already held hearings on “Game Changing Innovations,” “Experimentation and Agility,” and “Starting Programs Well” in the acquisition system. Thornberry has stressed the needed for agility and flexibility within the Department of Defense in order to accommodate technological change and combat rapidly evolving threats.

One area in particular that may draw the committee’s scrutiny is the rapid growth of operations and support (O&S) costs. Former DOD Comptroller Robert Hale, testifying recently before the Housed Armed Services Committee, argued that O&S costs should be “the next frontier in acquisition reform.” O&S costs include system operations, personnel, equipment, maintenance, modifications, software, and contractor support. They range from expenditures incurred during initial development through the end of operations.  

O&S costs have increased over twenty percent since 2000 and now usually make up more than half of the cost of a weapon system over its life cycle. One issue is that program managers have every incentive to focus on the early stages of a program’s life cycle, such as research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) and procurement (PROC), at the expense of what happens down the line. Statutory reporting and project oversight, especially during a program’s early stages, incentivize managers to “get the program to the next milestone regardless if it should move forward,” according to Christine Fox, former director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation in the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “They should be able to stand up and tell hard truths when needed.” 

The Pentagon recently created “affordability caps” to try to reign in O&S costs, but they need to be more broadly applied and overseen by congress, Hale said. According to the panel, the Bradley Fighting Vehicle and Long Range Strike Bomber are examples of programs that have effectively accounted for long-term sustainment costs. 

At the end of the hearing, Thornberry announced that the committee will introduce a standalone acquisition reform bill in March. In the meantime, the committee will continue to receive input from industry, federal agencies, and the public. Based on this year’s hearings, expect Thornberry likely to tackle the rising challenge of O&S costs. Members have also expressed interest in looking at managing technical and programmatic risks, such as by establishing a separate funding mechanism for riskier programs. Regardless of what ends up in the bill, 2017 looks to be another busy year for congress on defense acquisition reform.

Casey is a security policy studies student at the George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs.