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Terminate on Sight: Pentagon Budget Edition

Last updated: July 31, 2020 | February 24, 2009 | Mitchel Nash
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OK, so I’ve now read S.454, the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, introduced today by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). And it does appear, to my inexpert eye, to have some real teeth when it comes to curbing cost overruns on Pentagon procurement.First, the bill creates a new senior Pentagon official, known as the Director of Independent Cost Assessment, whose job it is to insert him or herself into critical steps of the development of major defense acquisition programs, assure accounting integrity in public reports, and produce independent cost estimates of big-ticket programs. The job appears to be pretty powerful: it’s a Senate-confirmable position, and while it works with both the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions — Harvard nonproliferation wonk Ash Carter was just nominated for that job — and the Defense Department’s comptroller, the position is independent of both.

So that’s one step on the front end of procurement costs. Another one comes deep in the bill — page 25 of a printed 31-pager — where it orders the Secretary of Defense to “terminate [the] acquisition” of major defense programs whose costs exceed 25 percent more than the current baseline estimate of how much the program should cost or  50 percent more than the original estimate. The secretary can jump through some hoops to get around this, but he’d have to certify that big and over-budget programs are “essential to national security” and “there are no alternatives to them.” (In other words, he’d invite ridicule.) A caveat: in reality, by the time big programs make it to the big-cost-overrun step, they’re pretty hard to kill, since they have constituencies in Congress, in the services and in the Pentagon.

The bill orders the secretary to develop “mechanisms” for ensuring “trade-offs between cost, schedule and performance are considered” before buying the big stuff.  Those mechanisms aren’t specified, but the bill wants “consideration” given to “fielding major weapon systems through incremental or spiral acquisition, while deferring technologies that are not yet mature.” That’s probably a reference to programs like the Army’s Future Combat Systems — the panoply of programs that represent the Army’s vision of a more tech-enhanced ground force, the cost of which has ballooned from around $88 billion to the point where it’s hard to know how much it will cost when it gets delivered. (Oh, and the delivery date is uncertain, too.)

I’ve reached out to some defense-budget experts to see what they think of the bill. Updates to come.

Update: You know what I should’ve highlighted in my first go-round? How the bill creates a new Director of Developmental Test and Evaluation to rein in sprawling Pentagon research-and-development costs. Because it does.

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