Put Service Chiefs Back in the Acquisition Business

November 25, 2015
By M. Thomas Davis


The drawbacks of a far-reaching policy can be overcome.


The Goldwater-Nichols Act (GNA) of 1986 and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) of the same year made major changes in the roles played by the chiefs of the military services: the chiefs of staff of the Army and Air Force; the chief of Naval Operations and the commandant of the Marine Corps.

The GNA formalized the chain of command by stating that it ran from the combatant commanders of the various regional and specified commands through the secretary of defense to the president. It also made the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the principal military advisor to the president and expanded his responsibilities for program and budget formulation and the establishment of defense priorities. These steps significantly reduced the authority and positions of the service chiefs, which explains why the service chiefs opposed these GNA changes.

But in addition to these steps, the 1986 authorization act essentially took the service chiefs out of the acquisition process. Following suggestions made by the Packard Commission, the NDAA removed from the service chiefs’ staff the deputy chiefs of staff for research, development and acquisition (RDA) and moved many of the personnel in those offices into the assistant secretary of the service overseeing that function. The three-star officers who advised the service chief on RDA became “military deputies” to their respective assistant secretaries, with the general guidance that they would report to the service secretary but remain “responsive” to the service chief.

In addition, the NDAA created an acquisition chain by establishing program executive officers (PEOs) reporting to a service acquisition executive (SAE) appointed by and within the service secretariats. Again, this acquisition chain did not include the service chiefs, and these officers found themselves with no immediate staffing on RDA issues and no formal role in the acquisition process. Most significantly, because they had no responsibility involving acquisition, they were therefore not accountable for acquisition programs.

The large majority of the changes made by the 1986 GNA and NDAA, particularly those that forced additional “jointness” among the services and empowered and expanded the operational roles of the combatant commanders, have proved to be quite positive. Operational experiences, from operations Just Cause in Panama and Desert Storm in Iraq to the current operations being conducted around the world, offer compelling evidence. But, as former Deputy Defense Secretary John Hamre recently testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, in some areas the changes of 1986 did not fully “get it right.” Certainly the changes made to the acquisition process, and the removal of the service chiefs from it, would be one of those fitting that description.

Since the 1986 legislation, the service chiefs have found it difficult to direct and discipline their requirements processes because the connections to acquisition had become so tenuous. Nor was it a simple task for the service chief to enforce performance discipline in an acquisition process over which he had only minimal authority. As the requirements process became more complex—a complexity compounded by the more active efforts of the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which also was a creature of the GNA, requirements became increasingly distinct from acquisition. As Heidi Shyu, assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, has stated, formal requirements often were established without sufficient knowledge of contemporary technological capabilities. Such a condition has contributed significantly to the failure of many programs—such as the Army’s Future Combat System, where technology simply was not available to satisfy the stated requirements within costs and schedule constraints.

The NDAA of 2016 has taken an important step to address this bothersome situation: it has re-inserted the service chiefs into the acquisition process by declaring them to be “customers.” This may sound like a minor change with more linguistic than practical implications, but the legislation states that the customer shall be “responsible for balancing resources against priorities on the acquisition program and ensuring that appropriate trade-offs are made amongst cost, schedule, technical feasibility and performance. ...” In addition, the language tasks the service chiefs to submit a report to Congress next March essentially stating what authority they have and suggesting what else they feel they need to “further or advance the role” of the chief regarding the acquisition and budget processes. Moreover, milestone decisions are to be made after considering input from the service chiefs.

New Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, USA, has been asking to be given a role in acquisition and then be held accountable for the results. He also has stated that the current requirements process is far too slow, noting that it can take two years—or four as we have seen in the recent effort to award the Air Force’s long-range strike bomber contract—to formalize a requirement. Gen. Milley argues responsiveness, linked to technological familiarity, is important, and that service chiefs are well positioned to positively influence both. He is correct.

Will this effort to put the chiefs back into the acquisition process be positive? We will have to see how the chiefs manage the effort and what sort of staffing they will need to provide the advice necessary for making informed choices. Some relatively recent studies, such as the study of Army acquisition by the Honorable Gil Decker, a former assistant secretary for RDA, and Gen. Louis Wagner, USA (Ret.), a former commander of the Army Materiel Command, argue that the elimination of the deputy chiefs of staff for acquisition has limited the ability of a service chief to link requirements to technological feasibility and then offer good advice to the secretaries of the services and the secretary of defense.

This staffing deficiency may be a serious shortfall the chiefs will find difficult to overcome and that they will have to address in their required reports, as none of them are likely to have a deep understanding of contemporary technology. But the new NDAA will provide them an avenue to re-engage in a dialogue important to future success on the battlefield. In that regard, the efforts of the congressional authorizers in the NDAA will help them “get it right.”

M. Thomas Davis is a former corporate vice president with General Dynamics Corporation and a past assistant professor of economics at West Point, the U.S. Military Academy.

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