WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has steadily been pushing milestone authority for major defense programs to the individual military services, but shifting personnel down from the Office of the Secretary of Defense will take longer.

At a Dec. 7 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology, or AT&L, said her intention is to continue to hand off the day-to-day running of programs to the services, preferring her office serve as a kind of high-level group providing overall guidance.

“AT&L needs to be the strategic body with focus across the board, driving affordability and accountability, reducing timelines, and equipping the Services to execute their programs,” Lord said in prepared testimony, adding that the Defense Department awards an average of 1,800 new contracts a day and 36,000 delivery/task orders a day.

In October, Lord said she intended to shift the “bulk” of major defense programs from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, or OSD, down to the services, potentially alongside personnel.

On the programs portion of that move, changes are already happening. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testified that her service has milestone decision authority over 39 of 51 Acquisition Category (ACAT) 1 programs, which is up from just 19 of 49 on Oct 1, 2016, when the fiscal 2016 National Defense Authorization Act went into place.

Put another way, the Air Force a year ago had milestone authority over only 39 percent of its largest defense programs; it now has it over about 76 percent. And just since Nov. 30, eight major programs ― including Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals; Three-Dimensional Expeditionary Long-Range Radar; GPS III; and the KC-46 tanker ― have had milestone authority delegated down to the Air Force, Wilson said.

The same is happening with the Navy. James Geurts, the newly confirmed service acquisition head, testified that the Navy currently has milestone decision authority for 40 ACAT 1 programs, including the future Guided Missile Frigate and the MQ-25 unmanned system, a change from before the 2016 NDAA. More importantly, the service is in charge of five of its 10 ACAT 1D programs, the biggest efforts that require the most oversight.

The Air Force is also focused on pushing authorities down even further so general officers make fewer decisions in favor of managers who actually run the day to day of the program, and for smaller programs down even further.

The service has milestone authority on all 43 of the ACAT 2 programs (an average cost of $437 million per program); those will be run by the program executive officer in order to “shorten the acquisition timeline to field needed capabilities,” Wilson wrote in prepared testimony. Meanwhile, the service has milestone authority on 274 of its 376 ACAT 3 programs, with an average cost of $70 million per program, where a colonel may make the final decision to move forward.

“They know what they’re doing,” Wilson said. “Let’s support them and let them get after their programs.”

‘We will be watching’

While the shifting of programs is already underway, deciding which people will be shifting alongside them is more complicated, in part because some individuals are already partly assigned to the services and OSD.

“We’re really working on a case-by-case basis, and we’re right in the middle of it,” Lord said. “We’re not saying that we’re doing something Day 1 and that’s absolutely forever; we realize that we need to prototype and experiment a little bit with the organizational structure.”

Such decisions will likely be part of the rolling quarterly implementation of the AT&L restructure, which Lord announced just days ago.

The drive to push milestone authorities out to the services originated with the office of Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who chairs the SASC. He included such a demand as part of a wide-ranging package of reform efforts in the 2016 NDAA.

Such a move was opposed by Frank Kendall, who led AT&L from May 2012 until President Donald Trump’s inauguration in January of this year. Part of Kendall’s opposition was about oversight, with concerns that the services would run wild without AT&L keeping a close look at what they were doing.

On Thursday, McCain again reiterated his belief that the Pentagon must let the services “manage their programs,” but put in a note of caution.

“While we have empowered the services, that doesn’t mean you can go and do whatever you like,” the chairman admonished his witnesses. “The services must let OSD set strategy and policy and do real oversight. That means being transparent — providing data to, and following the guidance set by, OSD.

“Again, we will be watching,” McCain warned.

Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.

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