The Pentagon currently has 85 major acquisition programs in various stages of the acquisition process. This portfolio of weapons is a mix of new programs and upgraded versions of existing ones. In 2022 alone, the American people will pay approximately $246 billion to research, develop, test, and acquire everything from aircraft carriers to handheld radios. Most of these programs are behind schedule and far over budget. In a June 2020 report, the Government Accountability Office found that the Pentagon’s weapons programs are on average 54% more expensive and more than 2 years late.
The person with the power of the pen at the end of the acquisition process — the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment — should understand the process and the defense industry, but it is crucial that they also have a demonstrated track record of independence. If a program in development is failing to meet the needs of the services, the top acquisition official needs to have the integrity to say so and cut our losses. Unfortunately, the next Pentagon acquisition official will likely not be the independent actor the warfighters and the American people deserve.
Backing Failing Programs
The Acquisition and Sustainment office within the Department of Defense has the mission to “enable the delivery and sustainment of secure and resilient capabilities to the warfighter and international partners quickly and cost effectively.” That statement is somewhat undermined by the strategies listed on its website, where the second goal to “build a safe, secure, and resilient Defense Industrial Base (commercial and organic)” ranks above the fourth goal to “increase weapon system mission capability while reducing operating cost.”
Rather than choosing a nominee with a history of independence, the Biden administration recently nominated a consummate defense industry insider to be the Pentagon’s acquisition head. William LaPlante, President Biden’s nominee to be the next Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, has a long history that shows he is inextricably linked with the defense industry and has actively worked to further its interests.
LaPlante previously served as the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology, and logistics during President Barack Obama’s second term. During LaPlante’s tenure, he shepherded high-profile programs like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and the Boeing KC-46 Pegasus aerial tanker as they struggled through their troubled development phases. Even as evidence mounted that both programs were failing to live up to performance expectations and were still years away from being completed, LaPlante unfailingly sung their praises in public.
“Boeing and the flight team are actually doing a good job right now, they are getting more flight hours in a week than we expected, which is what you would hope,” LaPlante said during his final Pentagon briefing before returning to the private sector in 2015. “I feel pretty good about KC-46.”
“Even as evidence mounted that both programs were failing to live up to performance expectations and were still years away from being completed, LaPlante unfailingly sung their praises in public.”
Six years later, the KC-46 still hasn’t entered full service. In fact, Air Force leaders are already looking beyond the program to a future “bridge tanker” program to make up for the KC-46’s shortcomings, including its deeply flawed remote vision system and a too-rigid refueling boom that can damage aircraft taking on gas.
For the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the department’s most expensive program, costs have more than doubled from the original estimates and the program is more than 8 years behind schedule. The program is expected in the coming years to limp to the finish line of the various testing and review procedures necessary before a full rate production decision can be made.
LaPlante also oversaw the selection process for the Air Force’s next-generation bomber, the future B-21 Raider. He is on record saying the development costs for the new bomber would be made public before the contract was awarded — a bit of transparency advocated by then Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Senator John McCain (R-AZ), POGO, and others. But Air Force leaders immediately refused to release the figure, citing security concerns with the dubious claim that potential adversaries could figure out some of the technologies being incorporated into the design. The same leaders had no qualms about publicly announcing where components of the new aircraft would be built or by whom.
Ties to the Defense Industry
Unlike many previous acquisition officials, LaPlante would not come to this position straight from the upper ranks of a major defense contractor. The last four Senate-confirmed Under Secretaries of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment all worked in the defense industry. Former acquisition head Ellen Lord was an executive with Textron, Frank Kendall was a corporate vice president of Raytheon, Ash Carter worked as a consultant for numerous defense contractors, and John Young worked for Lockheed Martin and Rockwell International.
Still, LaPlante’s links to the defense industry run deep. Outside of his government work, he has spent the bulk of his career in the research community for firms with large government and military contracts. After earning a PhD in mechanical engineering, he began his career at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, a facility that receives more than $1 billion in government contracts each year. LaPlante eventually became the head of their Strategic Systems Department.
After his previous stint in the Pentagon, the MITRE Corporation appointed LaPlante as a senior vice president for its National Sector, where he ran federally funded research and development projects for the Department of Defense. MITRE received approximately $7.6 billion in government contracts during his tenure.
LaPlante left MITRE to become the president and CEO of Draper Laboratory in October 2020. Draper is an engineering research facility based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that receives government contracts for aerospace and defense projects. LaPlante took over the laboratory after the previous CEO was suddenly replaced without explanation by an interim leader in early 2020.
“Outside of his government work, he has spent the bulk of his career in the research community for firms with large government and military contracts.”
An explanation did come in November 2021 when the not-for-profit Draper Laboratory paid nearly $3.5 million to settle allegations that they overcharged the U.S. Navy for projects dubbed “opportunity investments” back in 2016. The Justice Department said the laboratory had used Navy money for projects that were not of interest to the government or could not be backed up with documentation to justify the costs.
LaPlante has also bolstered his national security credentials by serving as a member of numerous defense industry commissions and boards. He is a long-time member of the Defense Science Board, as well as a board member of the National Defense Industrial Association — a defense industry trade organization that lobbies for more spending and weaker acquisition oversight. The Aerospace Corporation, a federally funded research and development center focusing on space engineering that received more than $1 million in government contracts in 2020, elected LaPlante to its board of trustees in September 2021.
He also served on the Section 809 Panel, the congressionally mandated blue-ribbon commission of experts from government and the defense industry created in 2016 and tasked with crafting recommendations to streamline the weapons-buying process. The panel drew up 98 recommended changes to the acquisition process. Several provisions would have reduced transparency and competitiveness.
“It was basically a cheerleading effort for the defense industry feebly masquerading as a serious report,” said Richard Loeb, adjunct professor of government contract law at the University of Baltimore School of Law. He characterized the panel’s recommendations as “an industry wish list” and went on to say that anyone who contributed to the panel’s efforts deserves additional scrutiny during the confirmation process.
“William LaPlante is as well-connected inside the defense community as a person can be.”
In just one example of the panel’s proclivities, the panel wanted to water down the definition of a commercial item, which makes it much harder for the government to track the fairness of costs or to obtain the data rights for the items purchased. Government ownership of the data rights is an important issue because without controlling the technical data of a weapon, only the original manufacturer can perform a large portion of the maintenance. The services are then left in a position where they have no choice but to issue sole-source sustainment contracts, which are often very expensive.
LaPlante not only helped craft the 809 Panel’s recommendations, but was a public face of the endeavor. He was one of the members sent to testify before Congress to sell those recommendations.
William LaPlante is as well-connected inside the defense community as a person can be. His track record is that of someone unlikely to make waves inside the Pentagon. An official serving in the position of Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment needs to know more than how to speed up the acquisition cycle and coddle the defense industry. This public servant needs to understand how the weapons and vehicles under development actually work in the hands of service members in the field. The ideal acquisition head for the Pentagon would understand that the best way to get the right tools to the troops is to pursue simpler designs, rather than using bureaucratic trickery to sneak industry-favored wonder weapons around testing requirements and oversight measures. This official also needs to have the moral courage to resist pressure from industry insiders to rush underperforming programs into production, and to be prepared to cancel programs when it becomes clear they are beyond redemption.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee should carefully consider whether LaPlante has the independence required to make the difficult decisions this office will require, or if he will be the rubber stamp for the defense industry that his background suggests.