Pentagon arms buyer eyes detailed program reviews

The Pentagon’s chief arms buyer yesterday said he was beginning detailed, hands-on reviews of the US military’s many troubled weapons programs to get a handle on chronic schedule delays and cost overruns.
“There are way too many programs that are not performing as they should be,” Carter said, adding that he agreed with Defense Secretary Robert Gates that there was no single “silver bullet” to fix the Pentagon’s acquisition problems.
“We don’t make one mistake again and again and again. We make lots of different mistakes,” Carter said.
He said he was taking steps to improve how programs were first conceived and begun, step up oversight during the life of the program, and terminate programs when they ran into problems or were no longer needed.
“I’m a ‘grease under the fingernails’ kind of manager so I’m going through program by program now and trying to surface problems, and then solve them,” Carter said in answer to question after a speech at the Council for Foreign Relations.
Carter said the department would pay closer attention to how weapons programs were designed in the first place, and whether the initial cost projections were overly optimistic.
The Pentagon also planned to use more fixed-price type contracts, in programs like a multibillion dollar replacement for Air Force refuelling planes, a new Army contract for a small diameter bomb, and even logistics contractors for war zones.
But he said this was not a “crusade” and fixed-price contracts were not appropriate in all situations.
He said the Nunn-McCurdy law, which requires a life-or-death review when a program breaches certain congressionally set cost thresholds was an effective tool, but the Pentagon needed earlier warning of problems with programs.
“By the time the Nunn-McCurdy bell rings you’re usually in the soup, and the thing is so screwed up that it’s difficult to straighten out,” he said.
Carrying out disciplined reviews of troubled programs was key, said Carter, who is due to meet with Army officials on Wednesday for an “in process review” of the service’s modernization effort, which had a $160 billion (R1191 billion) price tag before major changes ordered by Gates in April.
Army officials yesterday said they plan a major change in the acquisition strategy that would shift control from industry contractors to the government, step up oversight, and break up the program into more manageable chunks.
Another program the Pentagon cancelled was the Lockheed Martin Corp VH-71 presidential helicopter, which ran into massive cost growth because it lacked a realistic set of requirements, Carter said. The department was now working with the White House to develop better requirements, he said.
Carter lauded the Navy’s recent change in its acquisition strategy for new littoral combat ships as very creative, and said he was confident that it would help discipline cost growth on the programs and encourage more competition.
He said the department also needed to expand its cadre of acquisition executives to better oversee weapons programs, and Gates had already committed funds to move in that direction.
He said he hope to create more open channels of communication with industry, saying he did not understand why relations between the Defense Department and its contractors had become “more and more constrained” in recent years.

Pic: Pentagon building