‘Put A Match To It’ And Scrap DoD’s Buying Rules: Top Pentagon Advisor EXCLUSIVE

The best part is that’s a reform the Pentagon can make quickly, without Congress having to weigh in.

“When you look at the thousands and thousands and thousands of pages of regulations that have crept in over the years, we say ‘start over,'” said Arnold Punaro, an outspoken retired Marine Corps general and former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in an exclusive interview with Breaking Defense.

“If it was me, I’d take ’em all and put a match to it,” Punaro said Wednesday.

“We were focused on the art of the possible, [not] something that had to go to Congress and have a thousand laws changed,” Punaro said. “Ninety-five percent of what we are recommending, Secretary Panetta could do with a flip of a switch.”

“You can build a whole new system within existing law,” agreed one congressional staffer. It wouldn’t be easy, though: “The department would have to — god almighty — review all the regulations and then decide what to keep, what to not keep. It would be a huge project.”

The DBB report eschews Punaro’s arson metaphor in favor of the more guarded term “zero-base.” The idea is to go through the rulebook with the “rebuttable presumption” that every regulation is guilty until proven innocent and should be revoked, unless someone can make a persuasive case for keeping it in the new system.

“You’re not going to raze it entirely to the ground,” said Dov Zakheim, a member of Punaro’s task group and the Pentagon comptroller under George Bush, “but what you do want to do is make sure you’re not going to be swamped by all the regulations that have been piled on over the decades.”

The last major attempt to prune the procurement rulebook was inspired by the procurement scandals of the Reagan buildup: the Packard Commission of 1986, which led Congress to create the powerful position of undersecretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics (ATL) later that year. But the Packard reforms were undermined almost as fast as they were implemented. Costs did not go down. Weapons were not delivered more quickly. Today, Punaro laments, the bureaucratic “swamp” has grown back as bad as it ever was.

Throwing out the rulebook is just the start of the creative destruction that Punaro, Zakheim, and company recommend. To make his streamlined system work back in 1986, Packard “was going to put the best of the best in… people that have had successful experience managing large, complex, technical programs in industry,” said Punaro. “[But] you can’t get those people through the confirmation process any more.”

While the last word on top appointees rests with the Senate, the White House vetting process itself creates unnecessary obstacles that the administration can and should remove unilaterally, Punaro said: “The Obama administration’s regulations in this area go well beyond what the statute requires.”

Packard increased the power of civilian appointees in the acquisition process at the expense of the uniformed service chiefs, but Punaro and company recommend giving the uniformed military a greater role than they now have. Currently, the service chiefs have authority to set requirements (what the military needs) and to set budgets (what it spends) but not to manage acquisitions (how and what it buys). That division of labor leads to a “stovepiped” and poorly coordinated process. The uniformed chiefs step in and take a hand in troubled programs, , but Amos “had no standing or authority to do that,” Punaro noted, “other than moral persuasion.”

“You can’t just bring the service chiefs in when the programs in trouble,” he said. “It has to be part of the day to day activities of the Pentagon.”

Reinserting uniformed military personnel back into the civilian-dominated acquisition process at all levels, from the chiefs on down, is a major recommendation of the report. The current personnel system tends to ghettoize military officers who work on acquisition, promoting them at lower rates and keeping them out of actual combat units. Hands-on experience in the field is critical to getting weapons programs right, said Zakheim: “You want people who are familiar with the operational side to be on the acquisition side and vice versa.” So the study proposes restoring the old “dual-track” system whereby promising officers and NCOs would alternate between acquisition and command assignments.

The report also recommends a better trained and education civilian acquisition workforce, especially in terms of systems engineering. Today, said Zakheim, “the civil servants have to rely on contractors to evaluate new technologies. That’s not really the way it should work.” A more expert federal workforce would be able to hold its own with industry — without all the restrictive regulations that now keep the two at arm’s length.

“They’ve totally choked industry out of the problem,” said Punaro. “You see them in the hallway; you’d better run in the other direction, because some lawyer’s going to write you up.”

“We talked to two four-star generals that wanted to have conversations with industry on the JLTV [the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, which will replace the Humvee]; you’d have thought they were going to kill their grandmothers” from the reaction they got from their legal advisors, Punaro said. “The lawyers wouldn’t let them have common sense conversations that would have been by law and protected.” In this area too, he said, the problem is less the restrictions that Congress has legislated than ones the Pentagon imposes on itself.

Common-sense decision-making is paralyzed by regulations meant to prevent any possibility of impropriety. Scandals like the lead to new regulations and restrictions, Punaro said, but these measures ultimately cause more waste than they prevent by slowing the whole system down.

“It was appalling what they did at GSA; but what was that, $800,000 dollars? DoD wasted $50 billion of procurement [on programs canceled since 2001] that we never got anything for, and no one was ever held accountable,” Punaro said. “We don’t hold people accountable for the real problems. We hold them accountable for the rinky-dink problems.”

To fix that, he said, burn the current system to the ground and start over.

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