The Department of Defense has all the tools and authority it needs to buy and develop cutting-edge technology, but it lacks the leadership to mobilize and train the workforce to use it, according to the Pentagon‘s former chief arms buyer.
Ellen Lord, who was undersecretary of defense and preservation 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 big challenges. One is taking risks and the other is moving faster. So there’s a tremendous amount of authority that Congress has given the DOD over the last five years or so to speed up, to get skills falling into the hands of the war fighters,” Lord said on April 26.
“These were implemented both in directives and in implementation guidelines. However, it takes strong leadership to encourage the department to use it to move faster. So the tools are there, but I think leadership is needed to maintain the department that’s responsible for showing how they’re using other transactional authorities, mid-level acquisitions and those other things.”
The DOD already has good examples of this, she said, calling the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Offices and Defense Innovation Unit “Pockets of Excellence” that have a model based on “a clear line of communication to leadership and the ability to quickly adapt.” move” should be scaled across departments.
“Right now, with not that many politicians in the Defense Department seats, we don’t have a strong demand signal to modernize our practices and we’re not training people to use them,” she said.
Lord’s comments follow recent departures among senior DOD engineers and acquisitions, including Jesse Salazar, the Pentagon’s number two on industrial policy, and Jason Weiss, the DOD’s first chief software officer. The Biden administration also has a number of politically appointed positions to fill across the administration, many of which require Senate confirmation. The White House has just 38 confirmed appointments out of 60 Defense Department positions tracked by the Washington Post and the Partnership for Public Service.
But alongside the leadership, David Berteau, president of the Professional Services Council, which champions government contractors, testified that broad acceptance of these rapid acquisition agencies while measuring their effectiveness through congressional scrutiny is also important.
“I think from my point of view it is important to recognize that speed is very important here. But we must be able to do this, not just for a few but for all,” Berteau said, adding that PSC commends the committee to see how well the Pentagon is using rapid acquisition agencies.
“I think the spotlight of illumination will also help speed things up,” he told the committee.