GOP chairman unveils Pentagon buying reforms

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) on Tuesday unveiled new draft legislation he hopes will reform how the Pentagon buys costly weapons systems.

The Acquisition Agility Act includes reforms aimed at getting systems developed faster and more cost effectively. It’s also intended to help the Pentagon keep pace with changing technology and threats.

{mosads}”You look at history — there have been nations that just missed a major change in warfare and have gone into decline as a result,” Thornberry said, discussing his bill at the Brookings Institution. 

“It takes a least a decade on average to get a major defense program into the field for the warfighter,” he added.

The proposals follow up on 2015 reforms that sought to make the military services more accountable for cost overruns and delays on major weapons systems.

Thornberry is seeking to include this year’s reforms in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act — an annual bill authorizing defense programs, activities and spending. 

The bill would differentiate between so-called platforms and components. The goal is to field platforms first, then allow components to be easily and quickly upgraded as technology develops. 

Platforms would have systems with open architecture to facilitate upgrades and allow more competition for those upgrades. The military services would be able to use their own funding to foster experimentation and test upgrades faster. 

Services would have $5 million to spend on a prototype and a $25 million cap for an entire project. 

“We authorized the services to set up a fund to experiment and prototype,” Thornberry said. “A small amount of money that they can [use to] start early design work … plug it in to the larger system … see if it works how you want to.” 

Thornberry said he hoped this would facilitate technology development and avoid the “inventing as you’re building problem that has plagued us.” 

He also hoped it would bring more small- and medium-sized competitors into the market and reduce protests over contracts. Contract awards would be smaller under the reforms and not necessarily make-or-break for a company. 

He said the smaller amounts of money spent on prototype components would be preferable to spending huge amounts of money on an entire program that’s failing. 

“And when it fails, it fails spectacularly,” Thornberry said. 

The legislation would also clarify intellectual property rights — a contentious issue between the Pentagon and its industrial base. The bill would make all components conform to the same open interfaces, but privately funded components would remain the intellectual property of the developer. 

Rights to jointly funded components — involving the government and private companies — would be subject to negotiation between the two parties.

“I worry that … more and more companies are thinking of getting out of the defense business,” Thornberry said. 

“We have the most innovative commercial sector in the world. … We’ve got to take advantage of that [instead of] pushing them aside and making it more and more difficult,” he said. 

The legislation would also give the defense secretary more tools to manage and approve costs, scheduling, and technological risk for major acquisition programs, and then delegate so-called milestone authority to the services. 

Authority for joint Pentagon programs would be assigned to a lead military service to reduce redundant bureaucracy. The lead military service would be responsible for the platform, but other services would be responsible for their own various components and upgrades. 

Thornberry said there is little accountability “if you don’t have clear lines of responsibility and authority.” 

The bill would also aim to improve transparency by establishing an “Acquisition Scorecard” for weapons systems, which would pull from existing reports and documents. 

At Milestone A, the scorecard would compare the program and independent estimates of cost, schedule, and technical risk with analysis of alternatives. At subsequent milestones, the scorecard would update the program and independent estimates of cost, deadlines and technical risk.

If a program did not meet its Milestone A cost and schedule targets, “a light starts blinking,” Thornberry said. 

The chairman said he hoped to get feedback from stakeholders over the next six weeks before the House Armed Services Committee begins marking up the defense authorization bill.  

“There will definitely will be resistance: The services are not going to like some of what I suggest, [Acquisition, Technology and Logistics] is not going to like some of what I suggest, industry is not going to like some of what I suggest,” he said. 

But, he added, “It’s about a system that is not keeping up with how the world is changing.”  

Acquisition Agility Act Memo

Acquisition Agility Fact Sheet

Aquisition Agility Legislation


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