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Pentagon Paper Rules

June 07, 1988

With fair regularity The Times visits the puzzles of American defense procurement. And these sojourns into the wonderland of weapons buying result in a minor spreading of ink and no changes to the system. Much of what Vartabedian paws through in his story may pass as truth: On superficial examination, defense procurement appears whimsically complicated. But the complexity is dictated by the marketing practices of the industry. Sharp bidding and carefully circumscribed commitment make the difference between profit and loss in a defense contract. Contracts are signed with one hand while fingers are crossed on the other hand.

I challenge Vartabedian's conclusion that "cost and scheduling control systems criteria" fail to find cost overruns. It does find the hang-ups and does a very thorough job of identifying their causes. What it does not do is correct the problem. All too often that action is deferred to allow the program to proceed while decision points are juggled to accommodate the offending activity.

If ever government enterprise cried out for privatization, none sends signals clearer and stronger than national defense. Let's put to use the lesson about the F-16 from the Greeks: The government (yes, this is applicable to departments other than defense) defines a need. The defense (and other) industries go away to design, build, and document--at their expense--systems, weapons, hardware, and supporting systems and submit to evaluation and test by the procuring agency--but again at industry expense. The design(s) demonstrating adequate response to the need at affordable cost to be selected.

The pyramid of nit-picking requirements could vanish overnight. So could many of the multinational defense contractors grown fat on the nits. And, likewise, sadly perhaps, articles in The Times deriding the Pentagon paper puzzle.

LOUIS M. ST. MARTIN

Pomona

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