Arms-Buying Czar Proposed : Official Would Control All Military Purchasing
President Reagan, attempting to rebuild confidence in his defense budget, will ask Congress to create a new Pentagon position to oversee the acquisition and cost of everything from major weapons systems to incidentals like hammers, coffeepots and ashtrays, Administration officials said Wednesday.
The new position would carry the title of undersecretary of defense for acquisition, the third-highest rank in the Defense Department. Whoever is chosen for the job “should have a solid industrial background,” a White House fact sheet released to reporters said.
The proposed position was announced as part of a presidential directive to implement virtually all of the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission on defense management. The panel was created last June in response to a series of embarrassing disclosures about Pentagon purchases of $435 hammers and other spending abuses.
Reagan will also ask Congress to strengthen the hand of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in order to make the position “more independent in the formulation of military strategy,” an official said.
The official, who asked not to be identified, said the move would allow the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to make decisions in an atmosphere that is “less constrained by interservice rivalries.”
Reagan is fighting to protect his defense buildup from cutbacks by Congress, where balanced-budget legislation has made lawmakers reluctant to endorse higher defense spending while being forced to trim spending for domestic programs.
The proposed reforms should have “a positive impact” on bipartisan support for defense spending, an official said.
Reagan created the commission, headed by former Deputy Defense Secretary David Packard, over the objections of Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger, who considered the study to be unnecessary.
The commission pronounced the Pentagon purchasing system “adequate” but said there was “ample room for improvement.”
A White House statement carefully credited Weinberger with subsequently embracing the commission’s findings and undertaking several reforms on his own. One official said that Weinberger has been so zealous in ferreting out abuses recently that “there’s a feeling among the rank and file . . . that we’re spending $5 to find a $1 problem.”’
The official said the Packard commission chose not to focus on relatively minor abuses like expensive coffeepots and hammers in favor of concentrating on the system used to purchase million-dollar weapons systems. Although the smaller items are “important issues to look at,” he said, the commission concluded that the celebrated abuses disclosed last year “were not pervasive throughout the system.”
Mistakes Called Inevitable
The Pentagon handles 15 million contracts and some “mistakes” are inevitable, the official told reporters. “I know this sounds kind of hokey,” he said, “but this is nothing new.”
The system proposed by the commission would give overall responsibility for Pentagon procurement to one person, who would then work with a newly strengthened chairman of the Joint Chiefs to make decisions in an overall strategic context.
The White House described the changes as “the most extensive reforms of the defense Establishment since World War II.” And the official who briefed reporters said the new structure would “ensure that we are in fact buying the right weapons systems before we put them into full-scale engineering development.”
Defense Industry Ethics
The commission addressed also the lack of an ethical code within the defense industry. Although it shied away from mandating a code of ethics, Reagan’s directive calls on defense contractors to define a code of behavior and to police themselves.
The official who briefed reporters said that some governmental oversight would be involved, and that the Administration would reserve the right to cease doing business with a company that violated accepted ethical standards.
This did not appear to go beyond current practice, under which the Defense Department has imposed a moratorium on doing business with industrial offenders once abuses have been uncovered.