Decisions about competition for the LRV and UH-1N show why McCain’s initiative against USD AT&L really matters.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, wants to blow up the Pentagon’s Under Secretariat for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (USD AT&L). More specifically, his committee’s writing of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 would cleave that office into two new under secretariats, for research and engineering (USD R&E), and management and support (USD M&S). Over the weekend, Aaron Mehta and Joe Gould of Defense News reported that the bill is probably intended to let the military departments handle “basic acquisition programs” while the defense department concentrates on bringing forth big technological innovations. A short thought experiment about two recent acquisition decisions may indicate what profound changes to materiel this change in organizational structure could bring forth.

How so? Take the US Army’s recently announcement that it plans to use the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) as its next reconnaissance vehicle. Major General Bo Dyess, deputy director of the Army’s Capabilities Integration Center, termed that an “interim solution.” Talking to Courtney McBride of Inside the Army, Dyess noted that the service would prefer a bespoke solution to fill its Light Reconnaissance Vehicle (LRV) requirement, when it eventually finds the money. All the same, Major General Cedric Wins, the Army’s director of force development, says that the JLTV will be the LRV “for the foreseeable future”. In other words, it’s the interim solution, but so was the Stryker. The clock speed of technological development in ground vehicles just isn’t that fast, so there may be no brilliant automotive advances that the Army is about to miss. On the other hand, it’s a reasonable question whether a reconnaissance vehicle should be wheeled or tracked. The Army will now not ask that question, so ground military vehicle manufacturers with competing ideas can stand down. This gig will piggyback on the Army’s ongoing contract with Oshkosh, and for some time.

On the other hand, the US Air Force recently announced that it will pursue an open competition for replacing the aging UH-1N Huey helicopters that service its sprawling ballistic missile fields. The Air Force Department had sought permission from USD AT&L to buy UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters through the Army’s existing contract with Sikorsky. Earlier this month, Lieutenant General Steve Wilson, the deputy head of U.S. Strategic Command, told Inside the Air Force that a sole-source purchase of Blackhawks would have produced replacement helicopters at least two years faster. But someone at USD AT&L declined, so the Air Force will feed this issue into its not-so-speedy procurement system. Two years from now, it may have a decision. Fairly, I suspect that a helicopter smaller than the Blackhawk could serve the Air Force’s needs just fine. Helicopter technology is also advancing somewhat slowing—the Air Force does not need a compound or tilt-rotor aircraft for this need—so there is thus probably no brilliant aeronautical advance that the service is about to miss. However, against an open competition, AgustaWestland, Airbus, Bell, and MD Helicopters may bring bids offering American-built aircraft, and that may save the service some money in the long run.

These two decisions about acquisition strategies are different in multiple respects: Army or Air Force, ground or air, battlefield reconnaissance or nuclear weapons security. What’s remarkable, though, is that higher authority was content to let the Army avoid a competition for a vehicle whose performance will matter in combat, but is not content to let the Air Force make a convenient choice for a proven airplane in what’s mostly a rear-area role. While the nuclear security and support mission is very important, a Blackhawk could easily fulfill it. Rather, the former decision is a matter of cost and capability, but the latter is mostly just a matter of cost. Money is an important matter when spending is so far in deficit, but this pair of decisions really suggests something about the culture of USD AT&L. Indeed, as Mehta and Gould reported, SASC committee aides note that this assault isn’t about Frank Kendall, the USD AT&L himself, but about the “nature of USD AT&L” the office.

What’s so wrong? Well, we should ask why a purchase decision on 24 aircraft should ever reach that office. Can’t the Air Force be trusted to buy a few helicopters? Indeed, before the intervention of the USD AT&L, the Air Force was choosing a joint solution, buying an Army airplane to meet its need. But if the duties of the USD AT&L were handled by different under secretariats for R&E and M&S, who would have the authority to tell the Air Force not forgo its own R&E for the convenience of the Army’s M&S? This matter would likely never rise to the attention of the secretary of defense himself. So whether one thinks that centralized control of military procurement is good or bad, McCain’s legislative initiative would have lasting effects on practical bureaucratic decision-making in the Defense Department.

James Hasík is a senior fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.