The Best Defense

A brief but sorry history of defense reform.

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President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have promised widespread reforms to smoke out waste and abuse at the Pentagon. Sounds fantastic—except that Washington has been churning out blue-ribbon commissions, special task forces, and tough new laws ever since the Pentagon was created.

1949: Landmark Hoover Commission exposes rampant waste at the Pentagon.

1961: President Dwight D. Eisenhower warns of growing might of the “military industrial complex” in last speech as commander in chief. (Aides talked him out of saying “military industrial congressional complex.”)

1970: DOD bigwig David Packard and Fitzhugh Commission pledge to fix contracting process, offer groundbreaking suggestion to “fly before you buy.” Armed Services establish testing offices to make sure that weapons they buy actually work; offices later found to be ineffective because industry was allowed to help design tests.

1980s: Congress requires competitive bidding, accurate cost assessments, and accounting oversight. Defense lobby spends next two decades watering down reforms.

1981: DOD No. 2 Frank Carlucci introduces 32 initiatives to produce more accurate price estimates and increase competition; fails.

1982: Nunn-McCurdy Amendment orders termination of programs whose costs have grown by more than 25 percent over original estimates. However, Congress routinely makes exceptions at the secretary of defense’s request. Today nearly half the DOD’s big weapons programs are in breach of the law.

1986: David Packard heads a new commission, discovers nothing has changed since Fitzhugh Commission 16 years earlier. After measures based on his recommendations to “streamline” acquisitions are introduced, cost overruns on Air Force and development contracts more than triple.

1990s: Series of innovative procurement “reforms” causes acquisitions staff at DOD to be slashed by 50 percent by 2000; much of the work is outsourced.

2002: Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld strips away crucial oversight of missile defense program.

2003: The Army puts Future Combat Systems under “lead systems integrator” contract—meaning the firms that design and build systems also oversee contracting. FCS will go more than 60 percent over budget before being canceled in June.

April 2009: Gates says he’ll stop outsourcing oversight and will add 20,000 acquisition staffers by 2015. Senators Carl Levin and John McCain then pass Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009—promising legislation shot full of holes before it reaches Obama’s desk. Law establishes an office of independent cost assessment; interim director is ex-Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn, who strenuously opposed the office’s creation.


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