The Army’s recommendations recommendations

After a scathing report outlining the waste of billions of dollars, the Army still hasn't decided how it will try to avoid repeating its own mistakes.

The Army’s leadership still hasn’t decided how it’s going to act on the recommendations of a scathing report, filed seven months ago, that found its dysfunctional acquisition system has wasted billions of dollars, two top officials said Thursday.

In a sometimes confusing roundtable discussion with reporters, two senior Army Department officials said that a panel of top leaders would recommend how to implement the recommendations of the acquisition report to Army Secretary John McHugh, who was first briefed on the study earlier this year. The team will report back before the end of the year, and then McHugh will decide how to implement its recommendations on the earlier recommendations.

The original study, submitted in January by the Army’s former acquisition chief, Gilbert Decker, and the former head of Army Material Command, retired Gen. Lou Wagner, found the service’s inability to plan, manage and execute has had an enormous cost. Here’s one highlight from what they wrote:

“Owing to its sheer size, the now terminated Future Combat System (FCS) program can overshadow debates about challenges in the Army acquisition system; however, it is important to note that the Army’s challenges predate FCS. Excluding the funding spent on FCS, the sunk costs have been approximately 25 percent per year. Every year since 1996, the Army has spent more than $1 billion annually on programs that were ultimately cancelled. Since 2004, with FCS, $3.3B to $3.8B per year, or 35 percent to 45 percent per year, of Army DT&E funding has gone to cancelled programs.”

Decker and Wagner’s report, unveiled publicly for the first time on Thursday, includes 76 recommendations for how to improve Army acquisitions. But Army officials decided to release it after a roundtable with reporters, who were not able to review it before meeting with Deputy Undersecretary of the Army Thomas Hawley and Heidi Shyu, acting assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

Hawley and Shyu said the service already has decided to reject 13 of the report’s 76 recommendations, including that it disestablish Research, Development and Engineering Command, which the report’s authors consider a failed agency. But even though RDECom will survive, and the Army won’t follow the other points, officials said they get the message. Now, they say, they “want to look forward,” not back.

How did the service get here? The Army’s requirements process got out of control, Shyu said, taking too long and involving too little collaboration between the various fiefdoms in its vast bureaucracy. By the time doctrine, requirements, acquisitions and budget officials got through with their portions of the things they wanted the Army to buy, it caused schedule delays, which caused budget overruns, etc. It’s a familiar Pentagon story.

Hawley and Shyu said the Decker-Wagner report didn’t tell the Army anything it didn’t already know, but now that it has “confirmed” the situation, officials have adopted many of its precepts in today’s big acquisition programs. For example, the Army has already exercised “discipline” in its Ground Combat Vehicle program; Shyu said she was “optimistic” about the prospects for building a GCV in seven years, as the Army wants, and about the odds the program will survive under austere budgets.

But things started to get confusing. Buzz asked for another example: As the Army tries to build a new, armed helicopter, how will it proceed differently from the way it handled its failed Comanche program?

Here’s the exchange that followed:

Hawley: I wouldn’t say Comanche was necessarily a failure of procurement, but it was costing so much it, it was eating up too much money. We were at a point where we needed to recapitalize our existing fleet. Part of what has been pointed out as our difficulty is we came up to a war and we needed to adjust to a war and not spend money on … now we’re coming through another war and we need to look at recapitalizations of things … but, Comanche was a good program.”

DoDBuzz: “You don’t have any helicopters. If you develop a helicopter that’s the most incredible armed helicopter in the world, but you can’t afford it, as a question for acquisition reform, that seems like a valid thing to feed in your future programs.”

Shyu: “I would say, just because a program is cancelled doesn’t mean all the lessons learned and the technologies we developed doesn’t spiral into the next generation of the design … I come from industry, so I know from the programs that are under design and development, even when the program ends or is terminated, you’ve learn all the technology and designs during that time phase and you literally spiral your knowledge onto the next generation of design, so it’s not wasted in that sense, and that’s never, ever captured, the knowledge that’s gained.”

Did you copy all that? We never did learn how the lessons of Comanche were going to help the Army field a new combat helicopter. In fact, Hawley and Shyu don’t even agree that Comanche, which cost $7 billion and yielded no aircraft, counts as an acquisition failure — Hawley explicitly called it “a good program.”

This apparent unwillingness to accept a major premise of the Decker-Wagner report — that it’s a waste to spend billions and not end up fielding a new weapon — could be why Big Army has tried to keep it under wraps, although the trade publication Inside the Army and others have described its contents. But as you’ve read here on Buzz, the Army is in a tight spot: It stands to lose the most after the American withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, so its leaders need to show Congress they’ve learned their lesson about wasting money and from now on, they’ll be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

Hawley defended the Army’s track record over the previous decade, returning to the Comanche example.

“We don’t agree that we didn’t get anything,” he said. “No we didn’t get a completed Comanche, but we did get benefit from the program, but I wouldn’t say we didn’t get anything out of it … We’re trying to invent things here. We’re trying to invent systems of systems. You start off trying to do your best for soldiers, and sometimes you bite off more than you can chew … When you try and integrate complex systems that work in austere environments it can be a tremendous challenge. We’ve learned from each acquisition, but we go on from there.”