Audit: Pentagon Acquisition Reform Requires More Leadership Attention

Chad M. Butler/U.S. Navy

The Government Accountability Office also flagged a lack of oversight for many of the department's mid-tier programs.

The Defense Department has made progress implementing acquisition reforms in recent years, but leadership needs to pay more attention for meaningful change to take place, according to an audit released this week by the Government Accountability Office.

The audit was completed at the request of the House and Senate Armed Services committees, which sought to determine whether and how the Pentagon was handling numerous acquisition reforms included in the 2017 and 2018 National Defense Authorization Acts.

The answers are a mixed bag, according to GAO auditors.

On one hand, military departments have taken on a larger share of the decision-making authority for major multibillion-dollar, multiyear defense acquisitions since 2016. That year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense oversaw 30 major defense acquisition programs, compared to 58 overseen by military departments. As of March, OSD only oversaw nine major defense acquisition programs, while military departments oversaw 80.

OSD oversees only those programs that are high-risk, joint or had significant cost or schedule growth, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program or the Army’s Integrated Air and Missile Defense program.

OSD remains integral to acquisition oversight in that the 2017 NDAA charged it with considering acquisition cost, fielding and performance goals and secondly with assessing technical risk throughout the acquisition process.

However, in one of the key issues identified by GAO, “No programs have been required to have cost and fielding goals set under DOD’s new process yet.” Further, as of March, OSD had only conducted eight independent technical risk assessments on major acquisition programs. Such assessments “consider the full spectrum of technology, engineering, and integration risk, including critical technologies and manufacturing processes, and the potential impacts to cost, schedule, and performance.”

The audit also indicates a massive influx of rapid prototyping and rapid fielding acquisition efforts across the Defense Department. Mechanisms such as other transaction authorities were offered by Congress in 2016 and 2017 to give the military additional means to rapidly acquire and implement emerging technologies and field weapons systems within 2 to 5 years. Led by the Army, which has 20 rapid prototyping and 4 rapid fielding programs afoot, these “middle-tier” acquisitions have become important to national security. However, the audit makes clear the Defense Department doesn’t know how to oversee them properly yet.

“DOD has yet to fully determine how it will oversee middle-tier acquisition programs, including what information should be required to ensure informed decisions about program selection and how to measure program performance,” the audit states. “Without consistent oversight, DOD is not well positioned to ensure that these programs—some of which are multibillion-dollar acquisitions—are likely to meet expectations for delivering prototypes or capability to the warfighter quickly.”

The GAO audit identified a third issue: disagreements between OSD and military departments regarding oversight roles and responsibilities.

“Senior DOD leadership has not fully addressed these disagreements. As a result, DOD is at risk of not achieving an effective balance between oversight and accountability and efficient program management,” the audit states.

GAO issued four recommendations to address the identified issues.