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Pentagon needs smarter shoppers to outpace China

In its most recent annual report to Congress on China’s military capabilities, the Department of Defense concluded that the People’s Liberation Army has already “surpassed” the U.S. in shipbuilding, certain missile technologies and integrated air defense systems. China is continuing to close the technology gap, in large part through stealing intellectual property from U.S. private-sector firms. 

Pursuing a multi-pronged military-civilian “fusion” strategy, President Xi Jinping’s ruthlessly coerces his own people to join the efforts. Chinese businessmen, according to a 2015 national intelligence law, “shall support, cooperate with, and collaborate in national intelligence work.” Beijing’s “Thousand Talents” program, which recruits foreign scientists with access to proprietary military research and development, is another potent arrow in Mr. Xi’s quiver. 

Maintaining U.S. technological superiority will depend not only on our ability to out-innovate Beijing, but also on whether the Pentagon’s free market-based defense acquisition approach can outpace Communist China’s centrally planned thievery. 

Serving on the front-lines in this battle is the unheralded Department of Defense (DoD) acquisition workforce. 

The acquisition specialists are responsible for roughly $300 billion in annual contracts for our most advanced major weapons systems, as well as the spare parts for F-35s, Humvees and all the other gear on which our military relies. The workforce protects the U.S. government’s interests, negotiates a fair price, ensures on-time delivery, and manages critical requirements like interoperability, sustainability, cybersecurity and the viability of supply chains. 

The DoD’s acquisition workforce, in short, is what the military types call “mission critical.” 

But that mission has also become extraordinarily challenging because the current acquisition system is slow, overly bureaucratic and risk-averse, micro-managed via thousands of pages of suffocating regulations and policies. Requiring certifications, approvals, notifications, determinations and written reports, the Pentagon often takes months and hundreds of man-hours to purchase items that commercial firms buy with the speed of relevance. 

In an early March address, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin emphasized that securing the homeland will require more from the department’s workforce. The Pentagon should consider a three-pronged approach to build a culture ruthlessly focused on embracing the speed, innovation, and risk-taking for which the private sector is rightly hailed. 

First, according to a 2019 advisory panel report on simplifying the buying process, the Defense Department has taken an “unbalanced approach to professionalizing the workforce” by focusing on “training to meet certification requirements” instead of getting the job done quickly and fairly. The panel recommended a “competency model” with a greater emphasis on education and training. As with military tours of duty, the Pentagon should consider giving the acquisition workforce varied assignments of shorter duration, including developmental positions, training and stints in the private sector. 

Second, training should focus on integrating the military’s acquisition workforce into the mission and factoring innovation into the  procurement process. Acquisition officers should be kept up to speed on high technology — especially artificial intelligence. Third, the Defense Department should foster a culture of creativity and innovation based on completing the mission, not just following the regulations. Acquisition professionals should be able to make tactical decisions to achieve strategic success, with proper incentives when they get it right. The Defense Acquisition University is an excellent resource and should expand its courses on innovation and how the best managers go about their business. 

My former boss at the CIA, retired Gen. David Petraeus, used to emphasize the need to get the big ideas right, communicating and overseeing the implementation of those ideas, and refining them as necessary — delegating as much as possible rather than micromanaging. 

On the acquisition front, Congress and the military can do more by doing less. They should resist the temptation to “help” the acquisition workforce by piling on regulations and legislation. Instead, they should strip away excess bureaucracy and resist the temptation to micromanage, so that the talented men and women of the workforce can do their job. 

The acquisition workforce a critical — and critically underappreciated — national security resource. Aligning their training and career path with their mission will create the cultural shift necessary to tap the full capacity of the powerful U.S. private sector and keep us ahead of a rising China. 

Nothing less than Mr. Xi’s stated goal of making China’s military the strongest in the world by 2049 hangs in the balance. 

• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the CIA. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.

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