Empty Offices Mean No Acquisition Overhaul for USAF

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WASHINGTON — The Pentagon wants to fill a number of top U.S. Air Force leadership positions, particularly in the area of acquisition. But with a presidential election in November looming, finding people to serve in those roles might be a pipe dream.

Top offices throughout the Air Force corridors of the Pentagon are vacant. There is no undersecretary, no acquisition chief and no deputy weapons buyer.

Air Force Secretary Michael Donley — a holdover from President George W. Bush’s administration — is overseeing the service’s $40 billion purchasing portfolio, in addition to his regular responsibilities. Lt. Gen. Charles Davis, the Air Force’s top uniformed acquisition official, is also helping with many of the weapons-buying responsibilities.

“It is painful,” Davis said in an interview when asked about the number of vacancies. “We know we’re not doing a lot of things an office with three people would do.”

Therefore, much of the work the Air Force has been doing to overhaul its acquisition work force has been put on hold. This includes refining the structure of the work force and training opportunities for program managers, contracting officers and engineers, along with reworking the organizational structure to account for changes in civilian manning and more, Davis said.

“That’s a worrisome situation,” he said. “On the other hand, I do think we’re doing a reasonably good job of moving the infinite amount of paper that we have to on any given day, as well as trying to keep the right acquisition decision made at the right time.”

Vacancies among the top ranks are not unfamiliar territory for the Air Force.

The acquisition chief’s office next to Davis has been empty since Sue Payton retired in the spring of 2009. David Van Buren, who was Payton’s deputy, assumed her duties in addition to his own until March, when he retired.

Erin Conaton served as Air Force undersecretary from March 2010 until this year, when she was confirmed as undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

On July 3, President Barack Obama appointed Jamie Morin, assistant secretary of the Air Force for financial management and comptroller, as acting undersecretary.

Once more leadership positions are filled and 2013 budget issues have been ironed out by Congress, the Air Force will proceed with some of its initiatives.

“[W]e’ve got probably some strategic adjustments to do with what we do on acquisition,” Davis said. “We’ve got to get through the near-term fight first.”

Until then, Davis — who became the military deputy for acquisition in May — said he is focusing the bulk of his efforts on program execution.

Others in the Air Force weapons-buying office have stepped up while the Defense Department tries to fill the leadership vacancies, said Frank Kendall, defense undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.

“It’s not an ideal situation, but we are trying to recruit for the positions,” Kendall said during a July 16 briefing.

But with the upcoming election, finding people willing to take a job that might last only a few months could be difficult, since the undersecretary and acquisition positions require Senate confirmations. In addition, the nominees could be out of a job come January if Obama loses his re-election bid.

“As you can imagine, this time in an administration, it can be difficult to attract people; they’re gambling to a certain extent,” Kendall said.

The Air Force has a number of major, multibillion-dollar programs for aircraft, satellites and weapons about to reach milestone decisions.

“As a result of that, what’s taking up the time is trying to make sure all these programs have the right strategy or are positioned properly to go through a production decision, to release [a request for proposals] for a future contract award or to do a follow-on buy,” Davis said. “It’s a lot of the no-kidding, hardcore acquisition stuff that’s taking up a lot of time right now. It is the nuts and bolts of what we’re doing.”