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'Now or never' for cutting Pentagon waste?

'Now or never' for cutting Pentagon waste?
© Francis Rivera

The stars appear aligned for major reform of the way the Pentagon buys costly weapons systems, but the window for action is rapidly closing.

The Pentagon has come under attack over the past decade as wasting hundreds of billions of dollars in the development of weapons programs — including $46 billion on programs that were ultimately cancelled. 

Three longtime critics of the spending practices are currently at the helm of the Pentagon and the Armed Services committees in Congress.

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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who previously served as the chief of the Pentagon's weapons buying program, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) have all made acquisition reform one of their top priorities, and are now in a position to do something about it.

McCain and Thornberry included numerous reform provisions in their versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for next year, seeking to streamline the Pentagon’s process for acquiring weapons and hardware.

With Democrats fighting to win back control of the 2016 with a favorable electoral map, McCain’s time with the Armed Services gavel could be short.

While Thornberry could have up to six years as chairman, and Carter could be kept on by the next administration, McCain said he’s taking nothing for granted.

"In my case it's now or never, because I have to plan on two years. We know that the Senate is up for grabs,” McCain told The Hill. "I'm confident we will remain in control of the Senate, I'm confident we will elect a Republican president, but I'm not sure."

McCain is also up for reelection in 2016, and is a top target of conservative groups who are eager to see him challenged from the right in the Republican primary.

Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said having all three men in top positions presents a "golden opportunity for big changes in defense acquisition.” 

"You have two chairmen and a secretary of Defense who are knowledgeable about defense acquisition, who care about it, who are focusing on it, and all of whom want to see the system get better," he added. 

Still, the fate of the 2016 defense policy bill provisions is up in the air. 

For one, McCain has included provisions in the Senate's bill that go further than the House's. However, McCain and Thornberry say they have a good relationship, and are optimistic that they can come to an agreement when the bills are combined in conference committee.

Adding another obstacle, President Obama threatened to veto the Senate bill, with the administration saying in a statement that it "strongly objects" to the provisions.

In particular, the administration opposes McCain's proposal to give more decision-making authority to military services on weapons programs, in order to hold them better accountable for delays, costs overruns, and other issues. 

The administration says that would significantly reduce the Defense secretary's ability to guard against "unwarranted optimism in program planning and budget formulation, and prevent excessive risk taking during execution." 

Frank Kendall, who oversees the Pentagon's weapons buying system as the under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, blasted the proposal earlier this week, saying it would lead to more cost overruns. 

“The thing that bothers me the most about the [Senate] bill is that it destroys my ability to lead," he recently told Breaking Defense, adding that services chiefs "will be able to ignore me." 

A defense industry source said federal contractors like what Thornberry has done so far on acquisition reform. Given the White House and Pentagon opposition, the industry support could strengthen Thornberry's hand as he heads into conference with McCain. 

Thornberry said he is continuing to discuss with the Pentagon their views on the provisions, and that he thinks the differences will be "fairly easy to resolve." 

Hunter said McCain was seeking to hold services more accountable for cost overruns, but that he believed it was necessary to get buy-in from the Defense secretary if those programs are to be sustainable over the long haul.

But Hunter said there’s a lot of common ground between the bills, including improvements to the acquisitions workforce, accessing commercial technology, and streamlining the process and reducing unnecessary legal and regulatory processes. 

He said whatever the outcome, reform is important “because fundamentally U.S. national security strategy depends on having a technologically advantage over potential adversaries.”

“In order to have a technological edge, you have to be able to affordably and responsibly acquire new military capabilities on an ongoing basis,” he said.