Happy Memorial Day: Thinking of the Troops — And the Procurement Officers Behind Them

Yesterday was my birthday, so frankly I'm probably not awake yet. But while we take this (hopefully lovely) day off to BBQ, soak up the sun, and spend time with our families, let's also take a moment to think about something very important: how one of the most advanced militaries in the world gets the goods to keep us safe. I did a bit of research over the past few days into the history of the military procurement process and the millions of procurement officers and soldiers whose job it is to get all the gear -- from stealth bombers to the dining-wear on an aircraft carrier -- to the troops to do their jobs.

In the article Patent Costs of Military Procurement During Wartime, authors Ralph L. Chappell and W. Houston Kenyon Jr. quote Robert P. Patterson, Under Secretary of War, addressing the assembled Army patent staffs in December, 1944: "Our mission is to put in the hands of our fighting forces weapons and equipment that will be better than anything the enemy has produced or will produce." The United States has always been on the cutting edge of military technology -- and it's the often under-looked job of hundreds of thousands of government procurement officers to keep them in that position. It's also the job of these unsung heroes to collectively spend trillions of dollars.

With the glory, however, comes a very complicated glumness. This article points to the fact that "Last year, 98 major American military procurement projects were $402 billion over budget and, on average, 22 months late," the article says. Being a contracting officer for the US military is obviously a lot more complicated than one may think. "When one thinks of a contracting officer, there is a temptation to conjure up visions of a bureaucrat who performs the more or less ministerial function of inviting bids, selecting the low bidder, and drawing up the necessary papers for the contract," says Philip J. Cooper in the article Government Contracts in Public Administration: The Role and Environment of the Contracting Officer. Nothing could be further from the truth. These officers are charged with navigating through limits, rules, and regulations -- not to mention awaiting budget approval from local, state, and federal levels -- that would make your head spin.

World War II presented one of the most interesting times in military procurement's history. In September of 1940, a set of guidelines was released by the National Defense Advisory Commission in regards to the government working with suppliers in wartime, when it was impossible to gauge how much of any given item they'd need, or how much it would cost. The article War Procurement: A New Pattern in Contracts by David Fain and Richard F. Watt back in 1944 points to one of these guidelines: "The moral responsibility of the supplier is important, and in some respects, fundamental. There should be evidence of honest and sincere desire...to assume some risks himself rather than attempting to shift all such risks to the Government." In other words, this marked a time where the government relied on suppliers to work not for profit, but for the greater good of the country, often times expecting goods produced and delivered before a contract was even put in place, which led to the birth of the letter of intent.

Containing language like "This is to confirm that on or about October 22, 1940 you were advised that it was anticipated that the War Department would place with you an order for..." or "You have been advised that your company will be called upon to build and equip a plant for the manufacture of..." this period saw great growth in the power of government over suppliers for the simple fact that they needed to get what they wanted, quickly, and "in the interest of national defense." It's a noble concept, really -- giving up (or at least letting it fall to the background) the idea of profiteering and trusting in your Federal government so much that producing a product for the greater good comes before profiting.

It seems to be an idea that's lost in today's Congressional battles over funding and budgets, tied to the thin spaces between party lines -- and corruption in the procurement process abounds. In a recent post by Mark Schaffner of Verian Technologies, he talks about how the US made "a firm commitment" in partnering with Pakistan around the capture of Osama Bin Laden -- with no official scope of work or contracts in place. "It seemed fair," he said, "and my bet is that no one had the patience to discuss either the types of expenses and assets for which we would reimburse them or our performance expectations." Invoice after invoice was approved, until "in 2006, the Pakistanis sent a $70 million invoice for radar maintenance. Fortunately, someone in AP asked a really good question: "why are we paying for Pakistani radar maintenance when there is no enemy air threat related to the war on terror?'"

Now, one of the biggest problems in today's military procurement process is that of intentional low-balling to get a project approved, and then having to think fast when the budget is obviously exceeded. "Once a new project is in the military budget a few years, it is very difficult to get it canceled. Since Congress has a short memory, the military does not take much heat for this never ending "lowball" planning process," the previously linked article says. Interestingly, however, "while ten years of war against Islamic terrorism (especially in Iraq and Afghanistan) has cost about $1.2 trillion, that's not as big a chunk of change as it used to be. For example, World War II cost, at the time (in current dollars) over four trillion dollars. That amounted to over 33 percent of U.S. GDP at the time...Most of the current defense budget is being spent on personnel (payroll and benefits), and buying new equipment to replace the Cold War era stuff that is wearing out and to pay for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Ultimately, government spending and procurement is one of the biggest learning processes of all time. Methods are tried, failed, money is lost, new attitudes are adopted, jobs are cut, workers are rehired, and the endless lessons learned and forgotten only to be learned again are one of the most fascinating processes in government today -- all to keep us safe. So next time you're thinking about the troops, think about not only the millions of men and woman who put their lives on the line to keep our country safe on the front lines, but also the millions of procurement officers and enlisted men (and women) who spend their days getting the proper gear to help them do so.

- Sheena Moore

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