In March 2020, as the coronavirus spread and millions of employees around the country were told to work from home, the Pentagon’s acquisition and sustainment office mobilized to figure out how they could safely keep open companies critical to national security.
Every day, top officials would hold a conference call with the heads of three major trade organizations that represent the bulk of defense firms to figure out supply-chain chokepoints and how to exempt workers from local stay-at-home mandates.
But the office has been leaderless since Jan. 19, when Ellen Lord, the Trump administration’s defense undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment, stepped down. And those government-industry conference calls have stopped.
“Without someone in the office, there isn’t the guidance, and perhaps the follow-up and the accountability that you might have, if a political [appointee] was there,” Lord said in a recent interview. “That’s not an indictment, at all, of the civilian workforce; they’re great. However, just by the virtue of the governance and the organizational structure, there is only so much they can drive.”
And Lord’s former post is one of more than a dozen senior weapons-buying positions that remain filled with acting officials 10 months into the Biden administration.
“There are serious limits as to what an acting person can do and can’t do, no matter who it is, and no matter what administration,” said David Berteau, the CEO of the Professional Services Council who served in an acting political role three times throughout his career. “For anybody who would say that everything’s moving OK, that is simply not true. There are things that don’t get done until the Senate confirmed person is in place.”
Most of the vacant positions have been temporarily filled by career civil servants, but in some cases these acting officials cannot sign off on certain decisions, meaning they are kicked up the organization chart to Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks.
“There are a lot of priorities in the DepSecDef’s office and it worries me that one human being, regardless of how great a staff they have in their front office, can only focus on so many things,” Lord said. “The defense industrial base has a big challenge to do business, just given steady state, and I believe they really need someone in the A&S office, who understands what’s going on inside of government, as well as how industry works.”
While companies have in large part figured out how to keep factories open and the workers inside safe, the pandemic is still having a dramatic impact on the elaborate, and in some cases multinational, supply chain that defense companies rely on to build the military’s weapons. Access to raw materials is slowly increasing, but rising inflation is driving up prices. And those daily, turned weekly, calls that Lord and her staff would hold with company reps have stopped.
“We got into a daily rhythm of trading information,” Lord said. “We tried to put out the latest in terms of policy and guidance and then, more importantly, listening to where the pain points were.”
That allowed Lord and her staff to quickly respond. One thing they did was pay companies more money up front, a move many executives credit with saving some of their smallest, yet critical, suppliers. While many in industry would like to see payments institutionalized, it’s unclear how long the Biden administration will keep this provision in place.
The undersecretary for acquisition and sustainment oversees hundreds of billions of dollars worth of weapons projects across all branches of the military. Several of the office’s authorities have in recent years been delegated to the military branches, but it still oversees joint weapons projects, including the F-35 fighter.
The person in that position is “the primary conduit between industry and the department,” said Hawk Carlisle, CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association.
In addition, the official sets Pentagon policies around weapons-buying and mergers and acquisition. Knowing these policies allows companies to make internal investments and position themselves to act quicker.
“Industry can’t predict, they can’t do long-lead [work] ahead of time, they can’t establish the workforce and the pace,” Carlisle said.
Companies now face a Jan. 18 federal deadline to get their workers vaccinated against COVID-19. They are looking to the Pentagon for guidance about how to deal with workers who refuse the shot.
“Industry’s frustration level has been growing and based on my discussions…the frustration level is very high.” Arnold Punaro, chairman of the National Defense Industrial Association, said of the acting officials.
Some of the Pentagon vacancies are due to delays in the Senate, whose approval is needed to seat a president’s picks. But the Biden administration has yet to tap anyone to take over as the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer. It got close in April, when the White House said it would nominate Michael Brown to lead the office. Brown, who oversees the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outreach office, withdrew from consideration after it was revealed he was under investigation for circumventing federal hiring regulations.
In recent years, Congress has allowed the Pentagon to delegate acquisition responsibilities to the military services, but those top positions also remain vacant. Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary for research and engineering, is the only confirmed undersecretary who routinely works with the defense industry. The Biden administration has nominated weapons buyers for the Army and Air Force, but the Senate has not yet approved them.
“The bottom line is not having confirmed people in these key acquisition jobs either because the Senate is sitting on its duff and not confirming…nominees [or] the administration not having nominees for many of the other ones, this is a huge problem,” Punaro said.
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