Common Sense Measures

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Any legislation that would instill more accountability and discipline into the military procurement process deserves to be passed. The U.S. House of Representatives has proposed such legislation in its version of the 2006 Defense Authorization Act (H.R. 1815). The Senate should follow suit and agree to add the House language to its version of the bill.

Among other things, the House measure would strengthen an existing procurement oversight law known as the Nunn-McCurdy provision. Named for two former members of Congress [former Georgia Sen. Sam Nunn and former Oklahoma Rep. Dave McCurdy], the 1982 Nunn-McCurdy provisions require the Pentagon to notify Congress when costs on a major acquisition program rise by 15 percent and to recertify for continuation those programs whose costs rise by 25 percent.

Nunn-McCurdy is a good law but it has weaknesses. Congressional notification certainly puts problem programs on the radar screen, but does little –if anything — to actually fix them. By the time the cost of a program has grown by 25 percent — the point at which the procuring service has to make a solid national security case for not terminating the program — things already are out of hand.

Instances in which a program cannot be recertified and is thus terminated are rare — after all, if the program weren’t critical to national security, perhaps it shouldn’t have been approved in the first place.

The proposed amendment to Nunn-McCurdy would force the Pentagon to take a much harder look at a program — as well as potential alternatives — once the 15 percent cost-growth threshold is breached. In the case of space programs — whose cost-growth problems inspired the proposed amendment — the U.S. Air Force would have to submit a detailed analysis spelling out the funding that would be necessary to finish developing the system based on its current design; the cost of completion with design or requirements changes; and the cost of building an alternative.

This will not bring cost growth on space programs to a halt. But it will force program managers to come to grips with the problems sooner, thereby increasing the chances that things can get fixed before they truly spiral out of control.

In some cases, the Pentagon is able to dodge the Nunn-McCurdy requirement to recertify a system whose costs have grown by 25 percent simply by boosting the so-called baseline cost estimate for the program. The House version of the defense bill would close off that loophole.

The House bill doesn’t stop at strengthening Nunn-McCurdy. For example, i t would force the secretary of defense to sign off on major development programs before design work begins in earnest.

It also calls for a Government Accountability Office review of the Air Force’s cost-estimating capabilities and would force the service to make improvements in this area.

Given the Air Force’s recent track record with space programs, the language in the House version of the defense bill is common sense. For whatever reason, the Senate Armed Services Committee chose not to include similar language in its version of the bill.

If this was a simple oversight, the committee members can easily atone for if by adopting the Nunn-McCurdy revisions and other procurement-related provisions when they meet with their House counterparts later this year to hammer out the final version of the 2006 Defense Authorization Bill.

It would be both puzzling and disappointing if the current Senate position on this issue prevails.