WASHINGTON — During last week’s Capitol Hill press gaggle, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. William “Mac” Thornberry, R-Texas, turned a chance to offer constructive criticism to national security reporters into a moment of praise for their work and empathy for the challenges they face.
“I think, in general, you know, journalists do a very good job – and certainly better than at any time in our history – of reporting events that happen around the world,” he said.
When asked how well the media has been covering the national security beat, Thornberry opted to stand aside.
“I think I am not very well-positioned to critique somebody else’s job,” he told the small group of reporters and staffers who sat around a table and along the walls of a Rayburn House Office Building conference room.
“I have a big enough problem just trying to critique myself at my own job.”
He empathized with the seeming sensory overload that he said is encountered by reporters and politicians, alike.
“I think all of us — including me — have a harder time seeing the bigger trends because there’s a constant barrage of new, individual events and developments,” he said. “One of the challenges of the intelligence community, one of the challenges for us, you know, as policymakers, is to just kind of … take into account these individual events that we get barraged with every day and see the broader trends that you can do something about. And that’s hard.”
He said that the onus of sifting through this commotion to uncover important patterns doesn’t just fall on journalists.
“It’s up to all of us,” he said. “It’s part of the information age.”
WASHINGTON — Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, doesn’t want America to fear the future.
Terrorism, cyberattacks, epidemics and tumult in the Mideast and Africa threaten U.S. security, he says, and the Defense Department needs to be ready. To him that means reforms are needed in acquisition of goods and services, personnel and organization. Especially important is buying technology to keep pace with the changing environment.
“Nobody can foresee what’s going to happen over the next 16 months,” he said recently. “What we do know is the velocity of change is accelerating and that the unexpected will spring out on us. The question is how well do we, or how well can we, respond.”
“Today you see countries like Russia and China trying to outflank us using technology, whether it’s deploying carrier-killing missiles or building radar that can detect stealth.”.
Thornberry, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, said the U.S. edge in technology is decreasing, citing “the general pace of change” and “our broken budget process and acquisition process” as factors contributing to what he calls “an eroding American technological superiority.”
“The only defense is to adapt quicker than they do,” he said. “I don’t want to see America outflanked.”
Thornberry has proposed acquisition reform legislation, co-sponsoring with Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., a bill called the Agile Acquisition to Retain Technological Edge Act, H.R. 1597.
According to a House Armed Services Committee press release, the bill’s introduction was timed so that the public’s feedback could be obtained before the legislative ball starts rolling on the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. This way, Thornberry explained at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on March 23, the bill could function as “a discussion draft for the first tranche of legislative proposals to fix our acquisitions system.” During his CSIS talk, Thornberry noted that the full committee markup of the newest iteration of the NDAA is slated to begin on April 29.
Here is an introductory guide to this legislation.
Full Text of H.R. 1597:
(Source: House Armed Services Committee)
Draft Report on H.R. 1597:
(Source: House Armed Services Committee)
A Quick Outline of What Reforms Thornberry Has Proposed
(Source: Center for Strategic and International Studies talk on March 23, 2015)
Take away some barriers that make it hard for “top military talent” to have a role in acquisition process
Make Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund permanent
Enact mandatory commercial-market training to close industry-government gap
Enact mandatory ethics training for industry-government interactions
Every program needs to start with a written and “upfront” acquisitions strategy that is updated
Consolidates multiple reporting requirements
Choose types of contracts used on an acquisition-by-acquisition basis
Evaluate whether a multi-year plan is suitable on an acquisition-by-acquisition basis
Include risk mitigation strategies for acquisition plan
Possibility of allowing shared savings on service contracts mentioned
Chain of Command
Simplify chain of command for acquisitions decisions
Move from legal certification to a decision and decrease number of lawyers involved in process
Raise dollar thresholds on authorities to enable ease of getting things done
Keep testing/research community in R&D and out of decision-making
Regulations & Paperwork
Pare down reporting requirements
Keep a single decision-maker accountable within the acquisitions process
Watch Thornberry’s full CSIS address here:
CSIS Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group Director Andrew Hunter praised Thornberry for capturing “both sides of the coin,” in the sense that the plan married good intentions with an awareness of the facts that other potentially positive plans of action are out there and a “silver-bullet quick fix to the system” doesn’t exist. He said Thornberry’s “areas of focus and the way he’s thinking about the problem” were very optimistic, despite the fact that the language of the legislation was pending at the time of the interview.
Hunter said he interpreted Thornberry’s chain-of-command simplification goal to mean that every person in the acquisitions process would not have veto power versus experts being nixed from the process.
“At the end of the day, what you want is you want experts who come to you and say ‘no kidding, this is how we see it; this is, this is our vision of ground truth,’” he said, going on to explain that there needs to be an individual separate from the experts to distill various experts’ input and perspectives into a final, authoritative decision.
Hunter said he thinks Thornberry is on the right track, but that “acquisition workforce is critical” and that he wants program managers “to have good judgment” and a basic comprehension of the acquisitions-sector discipline. He also said he’d like to see defense acquisition reforms mirror changes occurring in technology and industry.
“The world of today and the world certainly of tomorrow is not the world of the 50s and 60s, and, so, we definitely want to make sure that we are adapting and adaptable to those changes,” Hunter said.
5 Questions Reporters Could Ask About the Bill:
What is the timeline for the rollout of the reform if the bill is ratified?
During his CSIS address, Thornberry discussed the minimization of pre-acquisition “paperwork” in order to streamline the defense acquisitions process.
What types of documents, in particular, are set to be minimized?
Will there an alternative source or process by which journalists covering acquisitions could theoretically obtain that quantitative and/or qualitative data if the research is being done but reports are not issued for the sake of reducing this bulk?
In the same CSIS address, Thornberry said that the decrease in pre-acquisition reporting was intended to reduce “second-guessing” on the part of program managers within the acquisitions process.
How do Thornberry and Smith define the line between responsible research and second-guessing?
What is a real-world example of a line of research that would be nixed vs. one that would be preserved for the sake of checks and balances remaining in the process?
Will there be any shift in the hiring process for program managers within the acquisitions process in response to the increased level of responsibility and authority that the proposed legislation would afford them?
How would the streamlined chain of command proposed by the legislation impact employment rates in the defense sector?