The Pentagon Procurement Debacle: "Disarming Ourselves as Defense Spending Grows" (Part 2)

Yesterday, I began to review John Lehman’s WSJ critique, analysis, and reform column of Pentagon Procurement from this past weekend. That review contained a large number of direct quotations so that those who do not subscribe to The Wall Street Journal could benefit from Mr.Lehman’s stellar expose. In addition to today's review of "What must be done to reform the current mess", I refer you to the WSJ synopsis that includes all of his 6 point plan.

The essay begins with a anecdotal summary of "Where did things go wrong? ...[:] When John McCain was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, he was flying an A4 Skyhawk. That jet cost $860,000 ... Inflation has risen by 700% since then. So Mr. McCain's A4 cost $6.1 million in 2008 dollars. Applying a generous factor of three for technological improvements, the price for a 2008 Navy F18 fighter should be about $18 million. Instead, we are paying about $90 million for each new fighter. As a result, the Navy cannot buy sufficient numbers. This is disarmament without a treaty."

Mr.Lehman's first component of reform suggests that "Secretary of Defense Robert Gates must establish a culture that restores hierarchical decision-making authority and personal accountability to procurement". In explaining this requirement, Mr. Lehman clearly believes that the existing military hierarchy is best suited to accomplish this task stating that "The staff of the secretary of defense should perform only those interservice functions that are essential to integrate and reconcile cross-service issues." While this may be the most direct route to establishing "hierarchical decision-making authority and personal accountability" it does not address the issue of creating a world class structure and climate for managing the Pentagon's civilian work force. The current malaise is not a direct result of having a too lean military presence but rather a complete lack of management and leadership. It's interesting that his second remedial step concedes that "Service secretaries alone should have the power" to control "the culture of unbridled design and engineering changes ..."

His third step insists, once again, that the "military services" should take back responsibility "of ceding control to contractors [which] should be abandoned" and that this will require a rebuilding of in-house technical, engineering and managerial staff from both "civilian and military ranks through special incentives, training programs and lateral recruitment from the private sector". An obvious, necessary and sound move but I'm just not clear how or why the military services are best suited to lead this charge. In step 6,in fact, Mr Lehman concedes that "for the more senior procurement positions, including the chief executives of the Defense agencies, there should be a major initiative to recruit outstanding leaders with proven records of accomplishment in private and public service". Given the right pay grade, I suspect that there are many expert and seasoned private sector procurement execs who would love the challenge and also be the best candidates.

Given that Mr. Lehman is a retired Secretary of the Navy, I don't want to get hung up on his propensity for military style management. We should be thankful for his historical perspectives as well as his candid and informed analysis. He concludes on a hopeful note that "a new administration can provide a new vision and new discipline" and that "So far the Obama/Gates picks are very promising" while adding that "If we don't reverse course, we face future catastrophe.”

William Busch

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