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House Democrats press for acquisition reform but retard innovative programs

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The Pentagon is shown in this Dec. 5, 2017, file photo.

For the better part of the past two decades, Congress has taken the lead in pushing for reform of the Pentagon’s hidebound acquisition system. Both Democrats and Republicans, especially those who sit on the Senate or House Armed services, have enacted legislation to revamp the acquisition corps, obtain detailed reporting on cost and schedule overruns, and prompt the Department of Defense (DOD) to reach out more actively to the non-defense industrial base, which increasingly has been the source of innovative and cutting-edge technologies.

Congressional efforts to ensure that DOD rapidly fields weapons systems, and especially artificial intelligence, autonomous systems, 5G and other state-of-the art technologies, has taken on particular urgency as China increasingly challenges America’s lead in these and other military and dual-use capabilities.

The DOD’s national military strategy has explicitly recognized China as a major potential adversary and the department has attempted to respond to Beijing’s technological challenge. Nevertheless, as has long been its wont, the Pentagon bureaucracy has done so in clumsy and cumbersome fashion. Despite the dedicated efforts of a succession of Republican and Democratic under secretaries for acquisition — a post that Congress divided into two under secretaryships — the bureaucracy continues to focus on process, rather than outcomes.

One of the most egregious examples of DOD’s failure to accelerate its acquisition process has been the inordinately long gestation of the F-35, the military’s fifth-generation fighter. The F-35 program development began in 1992. The fighter was first fielded in 2006. Twelve years later, the F-35 finally reached full rate production, more than a quarter-century after development had begun.

No wonder members of Congress have consistently expressed frustration that their legislative efforts have resulted in such minimal progress. It is, therefore, somewhat ironic that the House Appropriations Committee’s version of the fiscal year 2020 defense spending bill imposes significant cuts to a number of programs that would make a major contribution to the preservation of America’s technological dominance for the foreseeable future. Surprisingly,  the Democratic-controlled committee funded only $17 million of the administration’s $92 million request for its Defense Innovation Unit, the updated version of the Defense Innovation Unit experimental, or DIU-X.

This program was an Obama administration initiative under the leadership of Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. With offices in Silicon Valley, Austin and Boston, DIU-x (now DIU) was intended to enable DOD to reach out to smaller firms that were producing systems based on cutting-edge technologies, and that historically had little or no contact with the government. Moreover, the program previously won bipartisan support. The FY 19 authorization act, passed while Republicans still controlled both houses of Congress, mandated DIU to invest in dual-use hardware and strengthen defense industrial supply chains. In the past, the latter have been vulnerable to Chinese infiltration.

The House appropriators approved another surprising cut in their proposed legislation for FY 2020: It eliminated all of the funding for migrating data and applications to the Joint Defense Enterprise Infrastructure (JEDI) cloud, pending “a report to the congressional defense committees on how the department plans to eventually transition to a multi-cloud environment.”  The $10 billion JEDI cloud computing program was meant to house much of the DOD’s data, allowing for more effective secure data-mining and analysis. The committee justified the cut on the grounds that the program did not comply with Office of Management and Budget Guidelines — essentially that the contract was “wired” to Amazon Web Services, and that DOD should not lock such a massive program into a single contractor.

There is considerable merit to congressional skepticism regarding DOD’s creation of a single all-encompassing program. Previous efforts to create similar DOD-wide programs — for example for financial management, travel, or personnel management — have tended, at best, to suffer delays and overruns and, at worst, to collapse completely. Nevertheless, the appropriators could have released more limited funds with the proviso that DOD rebid the remainder, thereby ensuring the program could be launched quickly (DOD insists that it has run a fair competition but that few companies can meet its requirements). It appears that in zeroing out the entire program for perhaps another year, the Democrats’ instinctively negative reaction to large DOD programs outweighed their desire to upgrade the department’s IT systems.

The committee also reduced, by just under 20 percent, DOD’s $208 million request for Joint Artificial Intelligence. This program is meant to harmonize all DOD artificial intelligence efforts — a critical undertaking if the department is to avoid falling behind China’s stated determination to become the world leader in AI, and to which it has announced a major commitment of resources to achieve its goal.

These three programs are not the only ones to suffer from the House appropriators’ cuts, even as they applied funds, including unspent money from previous years, to longstanding programs such as the C-130 airlifter, the E-2D Navy early warning aircraft, and the Marines’ V-22 Osprey. In other words, in many respects, whatever their concerns about defense reform, the appropriators signaled “business as usual” in addressing defense programs. Whether the Republican-led Senate appropriators will take a different tack remains to be seen.                          

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

Tags AI AI in China Defense budget JEDI cloud
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