Karl Gallagher (libertarianhawk) wrote,
Karl Gallagher

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Reforming the Defense Acquisition System

In an earlier post about the defense acquisition system, pokeyburro asked:
if you wanted to fix it, how would you do it? Try your best to work it so that all involved parties would have a self-interest in perpetuating a stable, just system. (I'm guessing you'd claim impossibility, but meh; it's just a gedanken.)
You want my pipedream? Sure, why not. I don't claim this is something that could be implemented in our current system, but I'll try to lay out a practical possibility.

The current system didn't become a mess by accident. There's a bunch of forces working on it to make things more inefficient so different groups can benefit. Let's look at the stakeholders:
  • Citizens want to be protected from enemies.
  • Troops want good equipment, defined as safe for them, easy to use, and effective in combat.
  • Workers and stockholders want steady flows of cash from the government.
  • Congressmen want to be re-elected.
  • Voters want favors from the government--ideally cash payments, but laundering it through a defense contract is acceptable.
  • Bureaucrats want to get through their careers without being punished for making mistakes, such as providing bad gear to the troops or angering Congressmen by giving contracts to the wrong bunch of voters.
  • Officers working in acquisition are like bureaucrats, except they only need the program to be error-free for 2-3 years and then they're on to the next assignment.

So what do we get from this? Congress views defense contracts as pork to buy votes with, any military considerations are secondary. The bureaucracy sets up highly complex rules so they can have their asses thoroughly covered regardless of the outcome. Congress adds more rules and sometimes forces an outcome to get what they want. The contractors calmly comply with everything, charging for all the time expended. Various options will get declared out of bounds (foreign parts will be either forbidden or compulsory). The resulting weapons are underperforming because too much design effort has gone into jumping through hoops instead of dealing with the main mission.

Can it be different? Sure. Allow me one miracle--voters stop rewarding their Congressmen for bringing home pork and instead punish them for corrupting the system.

Once we have that the whole acquisition process could be decentralized. Rather than having national-level decisions on what to buy the various combatant commands can spend their budget on the system that meet their particular needs best. Purchases are approved by the CINCs or their delegates, and if someone accepts a bribe Leavenworth is always there. Boots and rifles could finally get the appropriate level of concern instead of being overshadowed by the big-ticket acquisitions. All purchases would be posted on the web (or a classified one if necessary) so there's sunlight on possibly fraudulent transactions.

DoD's function would be to test candidate gadgets and see how well they actually perform, It couldn't overrule a CINC's decision. Some sponsored development would be needed for breakthrough systems (radar, ICBMs, stealth, RLVs) but instead of picking a winner before starting construction Congress can offer a prize to whoever creates a working vehicle/whatever that meets specific conditions. Companies would push their engineers to innovate instead of holding them to the letter of a 1000-page specification. A second place finisher can still offer its system to the CINCs if it feels it has advantages over the winners'. If the winner can't compete it gets the prize but no further sales.

A practical system? I think so. There'd be some corruption, but the kind that can be found out and punished instead of slowing down every single purchase. If a CINC makes a bad call there'll be a new one in the job in a few years and the decision can be reevaluated then. I'd expect the system to be stable instead of having the constant accretion of rules that the current one does.

A politically viable system? That's up to the voters.
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