Mac Thornberry’s “Acquisition Agility” bill is a good start—but just a start—towards greater experimentation and prototyping.

Congressman Mac Thornberry’s “Acquisition Agility” bill is thirty two pages long, but its intent can probably be summarized thus. Thornberry (R-TX) fundamentally wants the military departments, not the centralized bureaucracy of OSD AT&L, in charge of the day-to-day business of military procurement. Specifically, he wants the Army, Navy, and Air Force Departments to hire companies with commercial interests to prototype new components for current platforms. He’s offering to safeguard those companies’ intellectual properties, as long as they’re willing to work within modular and open architectures. He wants new wholly new programs begun only with mature technologies, and for relatively short-term needs, with the modularity and openness bought as hedges for long-term upgradability. This last point will be hard to enforce for big platforms, but the rest of Thornberry’s proposals might bring forth components and smaller systems faster, which is at least a good start.

Thornberry’s bill would require that all major defense acquisition programs (MDAPs) beginning after 1 October 2018 utilize modular and open architectures. According to 10 USC 2430, MDAPs are programs expected to consume at least $300 million in RDT&E funding, or $1.8 billion in procurement funding, in FY 1990 terms. (Those are slightly over $600 million and $3.6 billion today.) The defense secretary can designate smaller programs as MDAPs if he wishes, but those twin thresholds would substantially firebreak the administration of things large and small. Reading on, though, the actual sums the Congress will entrust to the military without its detailed oversight would remain unimpressive.

That is, the bill strongly requests that the military departments devote more money—up to $5 million at a time—in “separate budget lines” for experimentation and prototyping of new concepts, and not necessarily linked to existing programs of record. The service secretaries can increase those limits to $25 million on their personal signatures. The secretaries are further directed to establish “oversight boards” to watch what’s being done with that money. The prototypes can proceed directly to production, without competitive tender, if the need is immediate, the prototyping was competitive sourced, the demonstration was environmentally relevant, and the project was actually successful. At that point, the secretaries can reprogram up to $10 million for buying the actual kit. Unfortunately, this is frankly not much. For those wanting a real replacement for, say, the A-10C, $35 million isn’t going to get anyone started.

The bill would further revise the department’s strategy for intellectual property management. It would at once require that buyers contract for unlimited rights to interfaces between systems and components, but would preserve rights to the “inner workings of the black box” for companies that design these at their own expense. On this last point, as Defense News noted, Thornberry says that he is alarmed by the number of companies considering withdrawing from military business because the Defense Department had gradually become such a bad customer.

With this act, however, the Congress would still not be acting as a superlative board of directors. Perhaps the least effective section would require that technology “be developed in a major defense acquisition program that is initiated after October 1, 2018, only if the milestone decision authority for the program determines with a high degree of confidence that such development will not delay the fielding target of the program.” After experiences like the SBIRS-Low and the Joint Strike Fighter programs, this is a laudable goal. The first problem is the culture of the three big armed services, whose people love stretch goals. The second is those personnel policies which shuffle management without enough accountability for past failures. In the bill, high degree of confidence is also left undefined. As such, the language is inherently unenforceable.

So skip that part. Thornberry’s bill has other provisions, but the prototyping authorities could meaningfully revise the Pentagon’s materiel acquisition strategy. The services would need secretaries who actually want to spend small sums on experimentation, rather than safeguarding all the bureaucracy and force structure they can. But if the bill passes, and they’re so inclined, the heads of the Army, Navy, and Air Force Departments will be able to bring prototypes of new kit into serial production. They’ll do so without needing to endure losing contractors’ demands to the GAO that the discomfited be given another chance. But experimentations limited to 5 or 25 million dollars each won’t produce novel ideas for stealth bombers. They might bring forth new drones, robots, boats, scopes, sights, jammers, or helmets—the quotidian kit of everyday fighting around the world. Thornberry’s bill is a start, but it won’t exactly change the American way of war. Some higher spending authorities would make for a better start.

James Hasik is a senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.

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