01 October 2008

Military Procurement Needs To Go Back To Basics

Defense Secretary Robert Gates acknowledged on Monday in a speech at the National Defense University that the DOD has over reached in its effort to produce game changing untested technologies.

[Gates] said the Pentagon had erred by favoring complex weapons systems that take years to develop. Instead, he said, the military should look for the "75 percent solution," favoring less advanced technologies that could make an immediate difference in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Gates' remarks were in sharp contrast to the views of his predecessor, Donald Rumsfeld, who believed high-technology advances could help shorten wars and allow conflicts to be fought with ever fewer forces.

"Be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish," Gates said.

He urged his audience to have an "appreciation of limits" of military power, cautioning that although the U.S. has achieved huge advances in targeting and intelligence that have made attacks more precise, warfare is "inevitably tragic, inefficient and uncertain."

The comments amounted to a critique of a military theory called "effects-based operations," which contends in part that the government can craft military interventions to have a predictable impact.

Meanwhile, the Army in a GAO audit, admitted that it was incapable of following even basic procedures in government contracting, like developing and following checklists of required documentation and performances, as it supervises military contractors. As shirah sums up the issue at Unbossed:

You know how it is. The one who cheated on you, not once, but over and over. And you just kept giving and forgiving, hoping they'd see the error of their ways. Your friends kept warning you, pointing out that that rat was bilking you of your hard earned money. But, you always love the one that hurt you. You know it's stupid, but you keep crawling back.

That's exactly how it is with the DOD and contractors. GAO tells DOD to stop letting the contractor abuse keep doing on, and DOD says, "Yes, you're so right." And then DOD just goes out and does it again.

Part of the problem is that the DOD is trying to think of the military contracting process in a market economy model. But, for much of what the DOD buys, it is the only or overwhelmingly dominant buyer, and there are only one or two companies that are in a position to do the work, all of which have sorry records when it comes to performing on time, on budget, and up to appropriate quality standards.

Indeed, when a foreign competitor like Airbus, rocks the boat by winning an air tanker contract in a competition with the sole domestic source contractor which engaged in bribery in an previous effort to win the air tanker contract, the entire procurement and political system convulses with alarm.

When commercial off the shelf contracting isn't possible, because the desired product or a good substitute for it does not exist, the military procurement system needs to see itself not as a market buyer, in the conventional sense, but as a manufacturing company that finds it useful to outsource some of the job to the private sector.

Indeed, given that so much of this market is a monopoly-monopsomy standoff, this may be a place where a state owned enterprise may be the most appropriate way to do business for non-COTS procurement.

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