Experts: Commandant rolls dice as 'player-coach' on key hardware programs

By taking a larger role in managing two major hardware programs, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos also is taking a sizable risk, defense sources say.

The new commandant inherited problems with the version of the F-35 fighter being developed for his service, as well as the long-troubled Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle (EFV) effort.

Amos became commandant in late October. Less than three months later, the F-35B was on probation and the EFV was scrapped and replaced by a less-ambitious program.

During a Feb. 18 breakfast with reporters, Amos seemed determined to save the F-35B variant, while also ensuring the new amphibious craft project is launched with realistic design and cost plans.

He told reporters of plans to act as “a player-coach” by injecting top-level — and real time — oversight into major programs. In fact, he has had his IT staff install special computer terminals at his Pentagon desk that allow him to view the latest program data with a simple swivel of his chair and click of his mouse.

Amos told reporters he will routinely huddle with military and industry program managers to “go through where we are” on those acquisition programs.

Four-star service chiefs are regularly briefed about major weapons programs and play an important role in the major decisions.

But what Amos described would break that mold, say former DoD officials and congressional aides. In short, the commandant is rolling the dice by tethering himself to these programs.

“In theory there is nothing wrong with it, unless it ends up getting in the way of the program manager doing his job,” said one senior congressional aide. “There can also be messaging risk if the service chief is saying one thing and the program manager is saying another.”

“Amos is rolling rather late in the game on both the F-35B and the EFV,” said Barry Watts, a former director of the Pentagon’s Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E) shop. “The commandant is taking a huge risk.”

Making himself a part of the program management also would place him under the congressional oversight spotlight if either program experiences delays, technical problems or cost-estimate breaches, defense analysts said.

A more in-depth role in overseeing the programs could lead Amos to a conclusion that would send shock waves across Capitol Hill and the defense community, said Watts, now an analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA).

“On the other hand,” he said, “Amos could simply conclude that one or both programs should be canceled.”

Should a service chief even be intimately involved in program management?

“It would take a lot of very close coordination to work,” said the congressional aide, “and you’d think a service chief would have better things to do.”

Several service chiefs have inserted themselves into managing weapon programs, and it sometimes works.

“The most successful past case I can recall was when” then-Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak “told Terry Little, then the [Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM)] program manager, to keep the unit price no more than $40,000.”

McPeak allegedly told his program manager: "By God, if it's one cent over, I don't want it,” Watts told The Hill.

Each JDAM came in initially at under $30,000. The per-bomb price now is under $25,000, Watts said, adding: “It's worth noting that Little was given a lot of latitude to bend the acquisition rules.”