Pentagon still not taking full advantage of rapid acquisition authorities, former official says

Ellen Lord, formerly undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, briefs reporters, August 20, 2020.

Ellen Lord, formerly undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, briefs reporters, August 20, 2020. DOD photo by Marvin Lynchard

Ellen Lord, the former undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment during the Trump administration, told senators "strong leadership" was needed to fully embrace rapid acquisitions policies.

The Defense Department has all the tools and authorities it needs to buy and develop cutting-edge technology, but it's lacking leadership to push and train the workforce to take advantage of them, according to the Pentagon's former chief weapons buyer. 

Ellen Lord, who was the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment during the Trump administration, told senators that "strong leadership" from the military services and defense agencies was needed to help the Pentagon buy the technology it needs faster. 

"I think we have two huge challenges. One is embracing risk and the other is moving more quickly. So, there are an enormous number of authorities that the Congress has given DOD over the past five years or so to more rapidly acquire to get capability downrange into warfighters' hands," Lord testified April 26 during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the health of the defense industrial base.

"Those have been translated into both policy and implementation guidance. However, it takes strong leadership to encourage the department to use those to be able to move more quickly. So, the tools are there, but I believe the leadership is required to hold the department accountable for showing how they're using other transaction authorities, middle tier of acquisition, and these other things."

DOD already has good examples of this, she said, calling the Air Force's Rapid Capabilities Offices and Defense Innovation Unit "pockets of excellence," which have a model based on "a clear communication path to leadership, and the ability to move quickly" and should be scaled across the department. 

"Right now, with not as many politicals in the seats at DOD, we do not have a strong demand signal to modernize our practices, and we are not training people to utilize them," she said.

Lord's comments follow recent departures among senior DOD tech and acquisition, including Jesse Salazar, the Pentagon's number two for industrial policy and Jason Weiss, DOD's first chief software officer. The Biden administration also has a slew of politically-appointed vacancies to fill across government, many of which require Senate confirmation. The White House has only 38 confirmed appointments out of 60 Defense Department positions tracked by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service. 

But in addition to leadership, David Berteau, the president of the Professional Services Council, which advocates for government contractors, testified that broad adoption of these rapid acquisition authorities while measuring their effectiveness with congressional oversight also matters. 

"I think that it's important, from my perspective, to acknowledge that speed does matter a lot here. But we need to be able to do it, not just for a few but for everything," Berteau said, adding that PSC recommends the committee to look at how well the Pentagon is using the rapid acquisition authorities. 

"I think the spotlight of illumination will help speed things up as well," he told the committee.

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