House Armed Services Chair Calls for Focus on Information Systems Over Arbitrary Metrics

Rep. Adam Smith

Rep. Adam Smith Greg Nash/Pool via AP

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., suggested a 500-ship Navy is inadequate if adversaries are able to disrupt command and control systems.

House Armed Services Committee Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., hammered the defense acquisition process in a recent webinar, describing the current system as ill-suited for nurturing the development and incorporation of innovative technologies. 

The Defense Department’s procurement paradigm tends to reward process compliance rather than results, leading to failed programs and wasted money, Smith said during a Friday conversation with the Brookings Institution. Addressing security threats today will not only take a shift in focus toward information systems but also a “major culture shift” in DOD acquisition procedures, according to Smith.

“Deterring our adversaries now is really about information systems and command and control,” Smith said. “How can you process information? How can you interfere with your adversaries' ability to process information?”

Smith criticized the focus on metrics like 500 ships for the Navy and 3 to 5% yearly increases in defense spending as ineffective measures for the health of U.S. national security. Having a 500-ship Navy doesn’t matter if the adversary can shut down the information systems that allow those ships to work, and increasing defense spending is irrelevant if real results are never achieved.  

But throwing more money on the pile isn’t enough when major Defense programs—Smith spotlighted the F-35 program—are leading to massive waste. Rather than a process-focused culture, DOD needs to foster a competitive, results-driven environment aimed at solving problems using the least amount of money possible if major information technology programs are going to avoid the pitfalls of the past. It should “physically pain” defense officials every time they have to spend a dollar, he said. 

“Our acquisition procurement problems tie into the fact that because it takes so long because there's so much process involved as you well know, we are not getting the best technology, the way we used to,” Smith said. “It takes too long. I mean software, the stuff that they're generating in Silicon Valley and elsewhere, by the time we get done with a two-year procurement cycle, what we're buying was obsolete six months ago.” 

The two-year procurement cycle is a common target for criticism. In recent hearings, experts including former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and others criticized this so-called valley-of-death as out of step with the way the private sector develops technology and dangerous for small businesses forced to find other sources of funding to sustain themselves over the two years. 

Smith recently announced the formation of a new Armed Services subcommittee on cyber and information technology to address this problem set in a targeted fashion. At the subcommittee’s first hearing on Feb. 23, Rep. James Langevin, D-R.I., who chairs the subcommittee, said department leaders need to move data and software out of back offices and onto the center stage. 

“They must enable the innovators and change agents across the enterprise, change the way the department buys and delivers software, and attracts the necessary scientific and technical talent to get us there,” Langevin said in his opening remarks.