Defense Secretary Mattis has rare, brief chance for Pentagon reform
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In a few days, the Pentagon will submit an interim report to Congress in response to the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) providing an update on Secretary James Mattis’ plans for reorganizing the office of Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (AT&L) — the largest office within the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in terms of personnel and budget.

Should the Pentagon focus too closely on Section 901 of the NDAA — which mandates the creation of the Under Secretary for Defense for Research and Engineering and the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition of Sustainment — and merely moves boxes around on a cluttered organizational chart in response, it may miss the greatest opportunity for fundamental acquisition change in decades.

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Over the past two years Congress has pushed the Department of Defense (DoD) hard to rethink the business of acquisition, providing new authorities and incentives to adapt to shifting centers of technological innovation and a complex and evolving threat landscape.

 

In their highest profile effort yet, the drafters of the 2017 NDAA essentially handed the DoD a blank slate in place of AT&L with the implicit promise to support the secretary’s vision for reform.

To effectively leverage this opportunity, the Pentagon must identify critical impediments to generating military-technical advantage and develop a change program capable of overcoming these challenges.

Setting the right scope will be a crucial element of success. Changes to organizational structures within OSD must be designed to enable and drive deeper reforms that modernize how the DoD develops and acquires new military capabilities.

Even when equipped with new authorities provisioned by congress, the DoD has often sought to generate military-technical advantage by working around the major acquisition system instead of reforming core organizations and processes (the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental and Strategic Capabilities Office are just two recent examples).

The real opportunity afforded by the mandate to reorganize AT&L is for the Pentagon to resolve the systemic issues that forced such workarounds and consciously redesign strategy, methods, organization, and incentive structures to meet 21st century demands.

Defining the specific problem the DoD should solve is the first step in establishing a clear vision for change. The secretary could address a range of challenges from access to and support for new sources of technical innovation to fundamentally realigning strategic needs with acquisition policies and processes or instituting a higher order business management structure to improve oversight, accountability, and reform across the Department. But the Pentagon’s finite resources and competing priorities beyond NDAA reforms will require Secretary Mattis to align the scope of reforms with the most pressing problems at hand.

With a broad mandate from Congress, the DoD risks either setting overly ambitious goals and overextending Pentagon resources or reducing Congressional intent into an ineffectual bureaucratic task.

To balance the needs of the department, the expectations of Congress, and the resources available to drive change, the DoD should focus reforms on empowering the new office of Research and Engineering to oversee and support disruptive innovation, separate from the restraints of the acquisition system.

It should also equip the office of Acquisition and Sustainment to implement essential, incremental improvements to policies and processes. Greater access to and support of non-traditional suppliers of advanced technology and more effective means to transition technical breakthroughs into widely deployed military capability would provide the DoD with the tools to begin arresting the decline in U.S. military-technical superiority.

To succeed, Secretary Mattis must act quickly to establish his vision for change.

The DoD’s March 1st interim report will establish goodwill with Congress and set this process in motion, but the secretary cannot stop there. Mattis should publicly empower a designated leader with sufficient resources and political capital to manage change within the DoD.

Furthermore, the purpose and benefits of designated reforms must be communicated early to key stakeholders to build a coalition of support and minimize opposition that could hinder an already difficult process.

And lastly, the right leadership will need to be recruited to manage AT&L and eventually transition and assume control over R&E, ideally alongside a principal deputy that would lead A&S.

Choosing fundamental reform over superficial reorganization will be a challenging and turbulent process, but success is within reach with strong and consistent leadership through and beyond the February 2018 transition to the new structure.

While the reorganization of AT&L will undoubtedly be chaotic and painful, it represents an exceedingly rare opportunity to address long standing organizational and procedural issues. It is not clear when a similar opportunity to fundamentally improve the ways in which the DoD generates military-technical advantage might present itself again.

If decisive action is not taken quickly, the window for implementing deeper reforms will close, the Secretary’s ability to lead change in the Pentagon will diminish, and the U.S. military will continue to see its technological advantages erode.

Ben FitzGerald, Alexandra Sander, and Madeline Christian are experts at the Center for a New American Security. FitzGerald and Sander are the authors of “Seizing the Initiative: Turning AT&L Reorganization into Technical Advantage.”


The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.