During his confirmation hearings, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin pledged to recuse himself from all decisions involving his former employer, aerospace and defense conglomerate Raytheon Technologies. This decision is widely being interpreted as a concession to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and other progressive Democrats. Sec. Austin is showing he is not playing politics, he is leading. He did the right thing, and he must keep going. His next act of leadership would be to pledge to recuse himself from the entire defense acquisition process and vow to launch investigations wherever needed for enhanced accountability – for the duration of his tenure at the Pentagon. Not doing so would be an optical elephant in the room.
Austin could collect as much as $1.7 million from Raytheon. Such significant compensation will make it so that, any time he is involved with an acquisition, both narrow and broad questions will be raised by the public due to the nakedly pervasive presence of large defense contractors in federal procurement. This is certainly not to begrudge an individual from making a living in the private sector; but once they enter into public service, it is wise to give ethical-appearance questions a wide berth.
As the head of a cabinet-level agency, Austin is responsible for managing a virtually limitless number of missions and policies. It will be impossible for him – as it would for any other singular individual – to personally oversee all of them. He needs to delegate efficiently. So this begs the question, with so many high-priority tasks at hand, why should the secretary of defense be involved with the acquisition process at all?
Leaving the process solely to the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment would establish a liability firewall for Austin. In his confirmation hearing, he noted that he would “surround himself with and empower capable civilian leaders and ‘rebalance’ collaboration and coordination between the joint staff and the civilian staff.” There could hardly be a better way to empower other civilian leaders than removing top Pentagon leadership from the acquisition process.
To be sure, there is far too little answerability to the American people when it comes to government spending. But the opaque world of major defense contracting is especially problematic when it comes to oversight, lending far too much credibility to populist assertions about “The Swamp.” Exhibit A: The F-35 fighter jet, at well over $1 trillion, is now not only the most expensive weapons system in the U.S. military’s arsenal, but it is also the most expensive weapons system in all of military history.
Lockheed Martin, the F-35’s primary contractor, did not anticipate the mind-bending price tag for the fighter jet program, which now exceeds the annual GDP figures of all but about a dozen countries in the entire world. (Raytheon, provides, among other components to the F-35, precision munitions for firepower.) It was Lockheed Martin’s job, for the sake of the American taxpayer, to consider the almost inevitable supply-chain difficulties and cost overruns that would result from what is arguably the first internationally produced fighter jet. The F-35’s more than 300,000 parts are produced by more than 1,000 suppliers.
Year after year, production setback after production setback, Lockheed Martin sucked up American taxpayer dollars like a nuclear-powered vacuum cleaner, all without any semblance of remorse. That is simply the way Washington works–– or, rather, “operates.” Big Tech is catching flak from both sides of the aisle these days and, shamefully, has earned itself the public spotlight. But Congress is merely masquerading. Its outrage is staged, just as it has been for decades against the OG Big Tech: “the military-industrial complex.” That’s why, 60 years after President Eisenhower’s warning, we’re footing the bill for fighter jets that cost tens of millions of dollars more per unit than projected.
A major optics and policy win for Austin would be to order the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General to establish a standing program to oversee the F-35 program. Involving the OIG for regular oversight in this space would provide the American people with at least a degree of assurance that the Pentagon is trying to do the right thing on its behalf.
From Austin’s perspective, the best element of these decidedly modest proposals is that he only stands to gain––in terms of credibility and his ability to better focus on his top priority: acting as “the principal defense policymaker and adviser.” No Secretary of Defense should be involved in micro-level contracting decisions. And while nobody expects Secretary Austin to fix the entire acquisition process in one fell swoop, right now, he can easily send the message that he is serious about getting it on track.
Lane Koch is a former congressional staffer and a Republican strategist specializing in grassroots voter contact. She wrote this for InsideSources. com.