Law will improve weapon acquisitions

In legislation, timing is everything. Good ideas don’t always make it into law. But this year, the timing was right for our good ideas as the House of Representatives, the Senate, and the administration agreed to make defense acquisition reform a top priority. On May 22, following unanimous approval in the House and Senate, President Obama signed the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 into law.

This landmark legislation passed in record time, and more importantly, I think we got it right. Since I’ve been in Congress, federal acquisition reform has been a perennial issue that has been persistently difficult to solve. Back in the 1980s, my friend the late Les Aspin, then chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, undertook a significant effort to reform defense acquisition. While these and other reform efforts brought some improvements, many of the problems that have plagued the system for years and have resulted in inefficiency and waste still remain.

Concern about the defense acquisition process reached a critical stage this year, prompting Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) to spearhead the weapon systems acquisition reform effort in the Senate, while I joined forces with House Armed Services Committee ranking member John McHugh (R-N.Y.), Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), and Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) to introduce legislation in the House.

Reforming the system we use to buy major weapon systems is a win for taxpayers and a win for warfighters. Too often under our current acquisition system, we end up with too few weapons that cost us too much and arrive too late. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports that the Department of Defense (DOD) will exceed its original cost estimates on 96 major weapon systems by $296 billion, which amounts to more than we spend to provide two years of pay and healthcare for our troops. Just as important in a time of war, the average schedule delay on these programs is 22 months. We can no longer tolerate this state of affairs.

To take control of runaway cost overruns, the new law establishes a Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, who will ensure that DOD makes decisions based on realistic cost estimates. It re-establishes a Director of Developmental Test and Evaluation, who will coordinate closely with a Director of Systems Engineering, to ensure that we rebuild the technical expertise to oversee complex weapon programs. To ensure that DOD follows through on these measures, the law requires it to make an official responsible for performance assessment. It also assigns additional responsibility to the Director of Defense Research and Engineering to assess technological maturity and to the unified combatant commanders, those leading the fight, to help set requirements.

In the area of policy, the law calls on DOD to balance its desire for cutting-edge capabilities with our very real resource limitations. The law promotes competition and directs DOD to eliminate conflicts of interest among contractors. By requiring more and better oversight, the law will help put programs on the right track in the early stages, when problems can be solved at low cost. The law also increases accountability, requiring DOD to focus on troubled programs until the problems are fixed or the program is terminated.

Some might wonder if a bill supported so unanimously could possibly include the reforms needed to bring real change. I contend, however, that the bipartisan consensus on this legislation resulted because the problems have become so obvious and so urgent that every member of Congress agrees strong action is needed. By substantially improving the oversight of major weapons system acquisition, the new law will inject greater efficiency into the weapons acquisition system and truly ensure we get the most out of every taxpayer dollar.

The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 is the strongest defense acquisition reform effort since the days of Les Aspin, and in fact, I firmly believe this law will be more successful than earlier reform efforts. But more remains to be done. The House Armed Services Committee’s Panel on Defense Acquisition Reform, led by Congressman Andrews and Congressman Conaway, will continue to investigate the need for further reforms to improve the acquisition system. I know the panel’s future recommendations will include more good ideas that deserve serious consideration and perhaps may become law as well.

Skelton is chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.