Is Defense Acquisition Suffering from “Reform Fatigue”?

This post, written by Jonathan Messinger, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum

There’s been a lot of talk lately about reforming the way the Pentagon buys. As David Wyld mentioned last week in his piece on Public Spend Forum, cost overruns are a way of life in weapons procurement, and as the federal budget cinches tighter, the problem is ready to go global (though, of course, in many ways it already has). Add to the mix a recent Reuters alleging decades of fraud in the Pentagon’s accounting, and confidence in our ability to purchase and sustain weapons may be at an all-time low.

And it’s only going to get worse from here. The DoD’s budget had planned for 3.9% annual increase in procurement through FY2018, but its 2014 budget already exceeds budget caps. Obviously, this is going to have to change, and Defense Secretary Hagel is already taking steps to prioritize spending to meet the new fiscal reality.

History Repeats Itself

But while procurement reform in other sectors—particularly IT—is a hot topic right now, reforming how our military purchases is something that has been going on for half a century. In the 1980s, the Carlucci Initiatives sought deregulation of defense acquisitions, and in the mid-1980s, the Packard Commission presided over one of the most prominent acquisitions reform processes in history. As John D. Fox says in his report for the Historical Office of the Secretary of Defense“Defense Acquisition Reform, 1960–2009: An Elusive Goal”:

In 1985, members of Congress introduced more than one-hundred-forty bills related to improving the defense acquisition process, many of which were accompanied by numerous press conferences, public expressions of outrage, and assertions that the new legislation would plug a few more holes in the dike. In 1986, once again, members of Congress introduced more than one hundred bills concerning defense acquisition.

A Rand Corporation study of acquisitions reform in the ’90s founds some 63 intiatives during the Clinton presidency. Clinton had made acquisition reform a priority. His secretary of defense, William Perry, issued a “Mandate for Change” in acquisitions reform,, and the president signed the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act into law in 1994, crafted with heavy involvement from the defense department.

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