Good news & bad news from Pentagon reshaping plan

Tuesday - 8/31/2010, 2:29pm EDT

Dale Church

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One of the most experienced Pentagon acquisition experts has good news and bad news about Secretary Robert Gates's plan, being executed by Undersecretary Ashton Carter, to reshape the way the Pentagon gets what it needs.

"What they're saying is clearly the right track," Dale Church, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering told me today. "The problem is, there are no quick solutions, no easy answers."

And those answers are complicated by a trend in the acquisition work force that Mr. Church says handicaps DoD's ability to get the procurement job done. "The number of full time acquisition professionals has dwindled from about 26,000 down to about 9,000 today. Much of that [work] has been taken out of the Pentagon and outsourced, not very satisfactorily. Their [Gates and Carter's] intention to bring the acquisition professionals back into the Pentagon is a terrificly good idea. There's one basic problem. It takes about five to seven years to create an acquisition professional, if you start TODAY. There hasn't been a lot of hiring because there aren't a lot of people out there ready to take on that challenge."

Mr. Church's insight comes from a long background of tracking - and working on - the Defense Department's most difficult challenges. "I've been witnessing this for 48 years, going back to the Commission on Government Procurement, and any number of [commissions like] the Defense Science Board. I worked on the Packard Commission. They came up with a lot of the same solutions." So what makes Secretary Gates's initiatives different than other efforts to reform the Pentagon?

"There's really nothing new. All of these solutions have been proposed - many of them have been tried - some more successful than others. Some of them are a bit contradictory," Mr. Church told me. "I read they want to do away with award fees, but then again they want to emphasize the Navy Excellence Program of giving special awards to contractors. It seems to me that's doing the same thing - award fees. I happen to be in favor of award fees; I don't think you just eliminate them."

A number of contracting tools already in the Pentagon's arsenal, like fixed price contracts, are not the silver bullet DoD needs either, Mr. Church told me. "[There are] other discussions like, 'we need more fixed price contracts.' Well, Secretary Lehman of the Navy had a big proposal going that way several years ago, and it turned out to be quite a dismal failure, because of the way new systems are acquired. They don't know all of the requirements up front; they don't even know of all the right technologies. So to slap a fixed price on at the beginning only creates a lot of inflexibility in trying to acquire something."

Mr. Church spent the second hour of the show with me today, and talked about a broad range of the challenges DoD will deal with in trying to execute Secretary Gates's vision for reshaping the department. Mr. Church offered his opinions on the expansion of overhead costs ("it's grown like topsy"); how Secretary Gates may be able to get his plan past Congress ("he's saying, 'look guys, I'm going to get you something better here'"); and the reality that the Pentagon's budget won't be cut, but reprioritized ("the tooth-to-tail aspect of it increases a lot").

You can hear the entire conversation by clicking on the audio link. You can hear my first conversation with Mr. Church, back in May, by clicking here.