New Congressional Order for US DoD Seeking Details of Mid-Tier Acquisitions

Foreign Affairs

Washington: As the Biden administration readies to release its federal budget requests for fiscal 2024, the Defence Department is facing new congressional demands to justify its expanding use of streamlined acquisition authorities that are meant to rapidly put capabilities into the field, in part by bypassing some traditional checks and balances.

The FY23 omnibus appropriations act, signed by President Joe Biden on December 29, for the first time levies numerous detailed reporting and certification requirements on the Pentagon regarding the use of “Section 804” Mid-Tier Acquisition (MTA) and rapid prototype programs — with the documentation to be included with the FY24 defence budget request. Which means when the budget hits Congress on March 9, the fight over the future of MTAs will officially kick off.

Congressional appropriators believe the new processes will create greater transparency and improve oversight. “The language [in this year’s appropriations act] is consistent with language we’ve been carrying for several years re: MTAs. Intent is to ensure that middle tier acquisition authority is used as appropriate, and not as a tool to circumvent traditional acquisition rules for larger programs,” one senior Hill staffer involved in the process said.

But supporters of the acquisition streamlining authorities call the new requirements overkill, and warn they will undercut the very raison d’etre of those acquisition reforms: to move much faster than the infamously calcified acquisition process typically allows.

Bill Greenwalt, a former Senate appropriations staffer who had a key role in designing the acquisition reform language in question, also worried about the potential for the reporting language to slow what progress DoD has made in reforming the traditional acquisition process, which has over the years come to eat up decades of development before a major new weapon system is ready for action.

MTA authorities originally were created by Congress in the 2016 National Defence Authorization Act to allow rapid prototyping and/or rapid fielding of breakthrough technologies, in part by waiving certain requirements of federal acquisition law for measuring performance. But over the past several years, some House and Senate lawmakers, as well as at the watchdog Government Accountability Office (GAO), have become worried that the Pentagon and the military services have been pushing MTAs too far.

Specifically, the FY23 appropriations language questions the practice of using rapid prototyping to actually buy and field operational equipment, and in particular chides DoD for developing large and expensive programs in a piecemeal fashion using MTA authorities. Thus, lawmakers are demanding that the Pentagon’s FY24 budget submission include an entry by the DoD offices of Research & Engineering and Acquisition & Sustainment detailing all programs using MTA authorities and a rationale for doing so, as well as cost estimates and a long-term acquisition strategy for each. They also require the Director of Test & Evaluation (DOT&E) to certify a testing plan for each.

Supporters of MTA programs decry the new requirements as far too stringent.