By Christopher M. Lehman
President-elect Donald Trump has made it clear that he believes our nation needs to rebuild its military strength across the board, but he has also made it very clear that the way the Defense Department buys everything from ships and airplanes to uniforms and spare parts is out of control.
Just about every American has heard about the president-elect's blasting Boeing Co. for the outrageous costs projected for the next-generation Air Force One. How can one airplane (or two) cost $4 billion? Shortly thereafter he took on our nation's number one defense contractor, Lockheed Martin, for what has become the costliest weapon system ever - the next-generation F-35 fighter. This is a weapons procurement program that Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) has described as "a scandal and a tragedy."
In the 1940s, with the onset of World War II, our nation went on a war footing and produced an astounding number of weapons systems and everything from rifles to blankets to uniforms by the millions. There was some waste and inefficiency, but, in the short space of four years, American industry designed and produced more than 100,000 armored fighting vehicles, 2.4 million aircraft (including 99,000 fighters, 97,000 bombers, and 23,000 transport aircraft), and 6,771 large ships and 35,000 landing craft.
That was then. For decades since, very smart people have tried to implement procurement reform for the Defense Department but nothing seems to work. Fighter aircraft now cost hundreds of millions and Navy destroyers and submarines cost billions. Even a toilet seat for an aircraft or a simple hammer can wind up costing thousands of dollars.
It seems clear from the president-elect's tweets and speeches that reform will be a high priority in the coming months. This is vitally important because the U.S. government's procurement system is broken. We are no longer building the military forces we need because the system now takes 10 to 15 years just to go from design of a new-generation weapon until it finally gets fielded. In the process, the projected cost goes from outrageous to bordering on insane.
Trump confounded the pundits when it comes to winning a presidential election and I am hopeful that, just maybe, he can confound the experts once again by totally changing the way the Defense Department procures weapons systems.
Clearly, the more conventional means of reform have not worked and the American public seems willing to give the new guy a shot.
In 2012, I was an adviser on defense issues for the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, and I had the audacity to propose a radical idea on defense procurement reform.
I proposed that Romney advocate a simple legislative provision that would grant to the defense secretary, or any of the service secretaries (Army, Navy, and Air Force), the authority for five years to waive any and all Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR). Instead, based upon the president's "special trust and confidence" in the secretary, the legislation would allow that official to use standard commercial law to acquire goods or services with funds appropriated by Congress.
In this way, thousands of pages of red tape and myriad bureaucratic obstacles could be eliminated and straightforward commercial contracting could be employed, saving months, years, or a decade or more, of delay and unneeded expenses.
Needless to say, after the laughter had died down, I was told by more senior colleagues that my proposal was naïve, ridiculous, and unachievable. The matter did not go forward to Romney.
It was certainly a radical proposal, but sometimes radical measures are necessary to solve radical problems. It is a widely held belief in Washington that the FAR applies to all executive agencies of our government but in fact some are exempt. Thus, there is precedent for allowing federal procurement outside of the tedious confines of the FAR.
There was no Department of Defense in 1941 when a world war was thrust upon the United States, but there was a War Department and it became the little engine that could. Within just under four years, our nation mobilized and built a mighty war machine to defeat an existential threat. The American people rallied around the president, our Congress passed the necessary legislation, and the war was won.
Can something like that be done again?
We will soon have a president who has proven that the impossible is not always impossible. Maybe Donald Trump will read this, get excited, and do something to make the Defense Department great again.