What went wrong with Army acquisitions

An internal report describes how Army cost-cutting hurt the service's ability to manage and complete its big weapons programs.

According to a report by a pair of top former Army acquisitions officials, Gilbert Decker and retired Gen. Lou Wagner, the service has only itself to blame for the years it wasted and the billions of dollars it squandered on failed weapons programs. Decker and Wagner’s study, filed in January but not publicly released until Thursday, depicts a bureaucracy so sluggish and impenetrable it makes the other services look as agile as dot-com startups by comparison.

From 1990 to 2010, the Army began and then cancelled 22 major programs, Decker and Wagner write, at an approximate cost of $1 billion per year starting in 1996 and rising as high as $3.8 billion per year after 2004. None of that spending yielded any programs that went into production. “The Army cannot afford to continue losing funds in this manner,” the authors write. So what happened? The Army happened.

Per Decker and Wagner:

The panel found the Army’s documented reasons for cancellation to be too general and sometimes in direct conflict with the facts based on personal experience with many of the 22 programs and discussions with others familiar with them. There are many different causes that contribute to a program’s cancellation, but it is also true that many cancelled programs shared several of the same problems. A few were cancelled because the threat changed; however, more common causes included:

• Overly optimistic forecast of funding available for Army modernization.

• Weak baseline, modeling, trade studies or analysis of alternatives.

• Unconstrained weapon system requirements.

• Underestimation of risk, particularly technology readiness levels.

• Failure to eliminate technological risk prior to Milestone B (MS B) approval.

• Program skipped or under-resourced pre-MS B prototyping.

• Too many programs started only to prove unaffordable in the budget and Future Years Defense Program (FYDP).

• Affordability reprioritization.

• Schedule slip.

• Requirements and technology creep.

• Cost overruns.

• Program restructured, quantities cut, unit costs skyrocketed and program support lost.

So what happened? The various lobes of the Army brain, it appears, couldn’t or wouldn’t talk to each other. Decker and Wagner also blame something you’ve heard about before here on Buzz, in another context — the fad of the late 1990s and early 2000s to run DoD “like a business,” (Buzz’s phrase, not theirs) which meant cutting back on civilian managers and letting contractors manage their own or other contractors’ projects, among other things. Here’s how the authors explain it:

During the period when these programs were being cancelled, the Army experienced erosion in the core competencies of the personnel responsible for the development of requirements and the acquisition of systems and services. This was particularly true in the case of military operations and cost analysts in [Training and Doctrine Command]; [Army Materiel Command]; Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Acquisition, Logistics and Technology (ASA(ALT)); and the Army Staff. The primary reasons for this erosion were the initiative begun in the mid-1990s to reduce acquisition personnel and the drive since 2001 to reduce the generating force and increase the operating force to cope with the Global War on Terror. Unfortunately, this has had unintended deleterious consequences on the Army’s ability to acquire materiel and services.

If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that Decker and Wagner go on to write that this doesn’t necessarily translate to readiness problems for today’s force — the U.S. Army is still the best-equipped in the world, they write, in part because of Congress’ willingness to spend whatever it took to give troops the best armor, best-protected vehicles, and anything else they asked for. But that spigot is going to shut off, so Army acquisitions has to get its act together, the authors warn — and they wrote this in January! If only they could have known their report would be officially released the very week Congress was debating $866 billion in defense cuts.

So what’s to be done? We’ll review Decker and Wagner’s recommendations in depth in a forthcoming post.