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Kendall: To fix defense acquisition, forget reform efforts

Apr. 30, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By | AMBER CORRIN acorrin@gannettgovcom   |   Comments
Hard work, not reforms, is what will fix defense acquistion, according to Frank Kendall, DoD's acquisition chief.
Hard work, not reforms, is what will fix defense acquistion, according to Frank Kendall, DoD's acquisition chief. (Staff)

The Defense Department’s executive overseeing military acquisition has had enough of reform efforts.

Frank Kendall, under secretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, on April 30 updated the Senate Armed Services Committee on acquisition initiatives, including the latest progress under Better Buying Power, as well as top challenges facing military weapons-buying.

Kendall faced some biting criticism from committee members as he testified: Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called Pentagon acquisition “abysmal,” citing a long history of missed deadlines, cost overruns and poor program management.

“We’ve got a real crisis,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). “I would use an unladylike term about how bad DoD is at acquiring IT, but I don’t want to do that as a United States senator. But you’re terrible at it. Just terrible.”

But Kendall defended his work as Pentagon chief weapons buyer.

“The approach I am taking is not one of acquisition reform; it is not revolutionary,” Kendall said in his testimony. “I’ve seen too many management fads and slogan-based programs that failed to address the fundamentals of what it takes to develop and field a new product. Improving defense acquisition is a long, hard, tedious job that requires attention to the hundreds of factors that affect acquisition results.”

Kendall emphasized his focus on what he described as knowledge-based decisions – including the continued use of comprehensive affordability analyses – something he said is critical for Pentagon leaders understand program-specific circumstances, such as the elements of risk and what can be done to mitigate those risks at different phases in the lifecycle.

“One-size-fits-all rules are often not the right answer to a given situation or problem,” he told the committee.

The Pentagon’s Better Buying Power (BBP) program, an evolving set of policies aimed at improving DoD acquisition and relying on lessons learned along the way, is now two years into its second phase. Kendall said he’s just now starting to seriously consider what a third phase of the program will encompass, but he emphasized that whatever the decision, it will look familiar.

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“Most if not all of the initiatives put in place under BBP 1.0 and 2.0 will continue,” Kendall said. “The hard part of bringing change to the Pentagon is not announcing new policies; it is following up to ensure that those policies are actually implemented, understanding their impact, and making any needed adjustments.”

Kendall reported that most programs subject to affordability caps under Better Buying Power remain on track and have successfully reduced costs. However, he also noted that the department still struggles with long-term affordability, particularly under sequestration.

Kendall also said that the department continues to grapple with acquisition workforce issues, including the need for better-trained workers who understand the processes – particularly amid an approaching wave of retirements.

“Seasoned and experienced program managers are retiring in record numbers and newly hired junior members of the workforce are not yet properly trained and qualified,” he said. “Defense acquisition requires expertise in design and engineering, contract management, logistics, the sciences and other highly technical professional fields.”

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