Congress extends deadline to replace Pentagon oversight reports

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U.S. Army helicopters are parked in the port of Alexandroupoli, Greece on December 3, 2021. (Sakis Mitroldis / AFP / Getty Images / TNS)

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) – The defense clearing measure approved by the Senate last week would end from fiscal year 2023, a requirement for the Pentagon to file certain public reports on critical weapons worth more than $ 2 trillion.

It is a unique class of documents that experts say has improved the oversight of such expenses for more than half a century. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 required that documents known as Selected Acquisition Reports be terminated after fiscal year 2021. The new NDAA for the 2022 financial year retains the termination mandate, but extends the period by two years.

The Pentagon is now working on a replacement reporting system that will make the information available in real time instead of quarterly or annual reports in a database. But the new system is not ready yet, and the proposed elements are not clear to the Congressional Force Committees, whose new NDAA requires Pentagon reports on the upcoming system.

The SARs, as the reports are called, provide information about the extent to which the Pentagon’s most expensive weapons programs are meeting cost, schedule, and technical performance goals.

Since the current reports, dating back to 1968, have been invaluable to congressional aides, defense professionals, auditors, and reporters, many support their continuation. Practically everyone, however, agrees that if they are to be replaced it must be done through a system that is as capable or better able to keep track of how officials are fulfilling their obligations, hundreds of dollars’ worth of weapons of billions of dollars to deliver on time and on budget.

The SARs regularly expose problems in weapons programs that Defense Department officials had not previously voluntarily disclosed. In recent years, the documents showed increases in costs for programs such as the F-22 and F-35 fighter jets, the Airborne Laser Anti-Missile Program, and the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships, among other things.

The SARs represent “the best information available to the public about the true cost of our weapon systems and are the only basis for independent assessments of cost growth across the Department of Defense portfolio,” said Mandy Smithberger, defense analyst with the Project on Government Oversight. a watchdog group that advocates keeping the SARs.

The NDAA of fiscal year 2020 has simply repealed the SARs with effect from fiscal year 2021, regardless of whether a replacement is available or not. The new NDAA only extends this deadline.

President Joe Biden is expected to sign the NDAA for fiscal year 2022 in the coming days.

When the members of the House and Senate of the Armed Forces finalized drafting this bill behind closed doors earlier this month, they did not include a provision by Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-California included in the House version that abolished. the SARs provided for the restoration of the reporting requirement for the 2020 financial year.

Transparency problem

While the SARs were valuable to policymakers in Congress and the Pentagon, many of them now want to replace the longstanding reports.

The Pentagon’s recently rewritten procurement rules provide for different degrees of oversight for different types of programs, and so the department’s officials want the reporting of program performance to be more varied and personalized.

Additionally, many policy makers want the reports to be available in real time rather than just periodically, making SARs now lagging indicators of program status, proponents of the change say. And embedding the information in a new database could enable new forms of analytics, they say.

The goal of changing the system is to improve it “to ensure transparency,” said a staff member on the Senate Armed Forces Committee.

The Pentagon now has different acquisition “paths” with reduced requirements for some programs to report their cost and schedule information within the department. The aim of the new approach is to simplify the bureaucracy in cases where weapons need to be used more quickly.

But the bespoke reporting process the Pentagon is developing is far from complete, Shelby Oakley, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office, said in April in a testimony to a Senate subcommittee on armed forces.

The report of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which accompanies its version of the NDAA, which the Senate never passed due to an independent dispute over changes, shows that Senators support the new system but do not want to throw the current one overboard without knowing that the replacement is fully functional.

“However, until these efforts are fully developed and implemented, the Committee believes that the requirement for select acquisition reports should be maintained to ensure that Congress continues to provide critical information on the cost, schedule, performance and other challenges of the largest descent Department of Defense receives acquisition programs, “reads the Senate panel report.

Pressure to reduce paperwork

The Pentagon told Congress this summer that it will not provide SARs this year, citing that the reports may not be complete because the budget proposal for fiscal year 2022 did not include any projections for future spending.

The SARs have been targeted for years by those in Washington who believe the Pentagon has too many reports to produce for Congress. For example, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld attempted to get rid of the SAR reports in 2004.

In a letter to the armed forces leaders at the time, Danielle Brian, POGO’s executive director, warned of the dire consequences of abolishing the reports.

“Abolishing it would deal a serious blow to the open government,” wrote Brian. “For example, the recent SAR round revealed a troubling history of spiraling out of control unit cost increases for weapon systems for programs ranging from the F / A-22 tactical fighter to the Comanche helicopter – if it weren’t for the SARs.”

GAO’s Oakley warned the Senate Subcommittee in April that much depends on developing new ways to monitor the performance of weapons programs.

“Unless significant changes are made to focus oversight on key aspects of program performance, it could have reverberations for decades if critical programs continue to deliver disappointing results,” said Oakley.

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