The Secretary of Defense’s Crucial Role in Acquisition
July 15, 2015
The division of power between the secretary of defense and the military services continues to be controversial, decades after the Department of Defense (DoD) was created in 1947 in an effort to unite the Department of War, which contained the Army and the Army Air Forces, with the separate Department of the Navy, which managed the Navy and Marine Corps. Who controls acquisition—the buying of food, fuel, bullets, and technology—has long been a key part of the struggle.
The secretary currently controls DoD’s acquisition system, specifically the largest projects, known as major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs). Today, DoD has 78 such programs representing a total planned investment program of $1.4 trillion. Clearly, control of this huge investment is fundamental to shaping the military of today and tomorrow. However, simmering discontent with cost growth in defense acquisition has led to a Senate proposal to give approval authority for MDAPs, a power known as milestone decision authority, back to the military services except where the program is inherently joint, international, or requires special management. Only 4 of the 78 existing MDAPs would clearly meet the criteria for an exception on the basis of jointness. Many others could qualify for an exception on the basis of past cost growth. However, new systems would be almost entirely under the control of the services.
The Senate proposal has two worthwhile goals: to reduce red tape and hold the military services accountable for their acquisition performance. Unfortunately, in pursuit of these goals it sacrifices far too much of the secretary of defense’s fundamental power to shape the military. By better understanding what the secretary of defense’s role in acquisition truly is, and is not, Congress can craft a viable alternative to the Senate proposal. There are two very different strands of activity that occur in any acquisition program. The first is acquisition planning where decisions are made on the fundamental strategy for developing and buying a new system and to commit resources to the program. The second strand is program execution in which a contractor is selected, risks are managed, production is monitored, and contract payments are made. Congress provides oversight to both strands of activity and so thinks about them the same way, but the secretary’s role in these two strands is very different.
The secretary’s role is to shape acquisition so that it aligns with national strategy and the sound management of the department’s resources. For acquisition planning, this means playing a decisive role in the development of acquisition strategies and in committing to development and production. For program execution, this means helping the services as they require and ensuring accountability when programs get off track. Here’s the rub: milestone decision authority falls squarely in the acquisition planning arena where the secretary’s role should be decisive. MDAP milestone decisions that don’t include the secretary set the services up for glaring disconnects with the rest of the department. This is particularly true early in the acquisition process at the critical decision known as milestone B. Under the Senate proposal, this milestone would be the exclusive domain of the services for almost all new programs—fundamentally undermining the secretary’s proper acquisition role. The story is different for program execution, and this is where the Senate’s proposal can have great utility. When it comes to program execution, get out of the services’ way, helping when called upon. Unless a program gets into real trouble, the services should be given the freedom to get the job done without a host of people checking their homework at every step.
As Congress negotiates the final version of the National Defense Authorization Act, the Senate’s proposal for streamlining acquisition should be modified to preserve the secretary of defense’s control of the milestone decision process. The streamlining the Senate proposes, however, is likely appropriate for matters of program execution. If the final bill protects the secretary’s role in acquisition while enforcing the primacy of military program managers in program execution, it will be a solid outcome for the military and for taxpayers.
Andrew Hunter is director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2015 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.