How bad is the defense acquisition system, really?
Every day, anonymous bureaucrats make decisions that will have a profound effect on people's lives. These decisions are as boring as they are important, and I suspect that most people are okay with the process to a degree — civilization requires a certain amount of paperwork. The problem comes when the usual unhelpfulness and rule-following of civil servants is mixed with something worse: favoritism. What frustrates people I talk to at home is that the bureaucracy actually does work — you just need a $300 an hour lobbyist to make it go in your favor.
About three weeks ago, my office came across what I think is a clear-cut case of this kind of favoritism. It has to do with a $418 million arms deal to Kenya that's being brokered by our government. That deal, to provide our ally Kenya with a weaponized border patrol aircraft to fight Al-Qaida ally Al-Shabaab, was awarded without competition to one of the largest U.S. based defense contractors, L-3 Communications. The fact that L-3 has never successfully produced an armed airplane of this type did not seem to matter to the Air Force's 645th Aeronautical Systems Group, also known as "Big Safari."
This is not the first time Big Safari pushed a deal to L-3. In 2013, the US 6th Special Operations Squadron specifically asked for four planes to help them support the Yemeni government against the Houthi insurgency. The planes they requested were from North Carolina based IOMAX, a company that has built nearly 50 of these aircraft and dropped more than 4,000 bombs on ISIS targets in the Middle East. The request went up through the Air Force chain of command, and then stopped at Big Safari, where it was then re-routed to L-3, a company that had no experience in producing weaponized border patrol aircraft.
L-3's non-weaponized planes were delivered late, after the fall of the Yemeni government, and ultimately rejected by the 6th Special Operations Squadron. It's a disappointing series of events, but an explanation for why it happened could be the close relationship between L-3 and Big Safari —so close that a detachment of the unit is actually physically located in the L-3 facility in Waco, Texas. With this recent Kenya sale, Big Safari has once again given L-3 a sole-source contract, despite their inexperience and lack of success in producing weaponized agricultural aircraft.
IOMAX was never considered for the Kenya sale and didn't hear about it until the terms of the deal had been released. When one company's got a plane, and the other doesn't, and the company with a plane loses out to the one without it, that strikes me as pretty much the definition of favoritism. The fact that there wasn't even an opportunity for the smaller company to get a foot in the door because the deal went through without competition makes this situation even worse. To top it off, the big contractor actually has acquisition guys on site at its facility working alongside company personnel. It's hard for me to think of how this could get more unfair, short of putting a billboard in front of the Pentagon that says "No Small Businesses Need Apply."
Beyond the serious issues with our acquisition system presented by this deal, Kenya is an ally, and it has pursued this sale with our government, paying a fee that could be in excess of $15 million to access our acquisition system in order to get a fair deal on the best quality aircraft to fight Al-Shabaab. Our government has a legal and regulatory duty to procure those planes as if it were buying them on behalf of the U.S. taxpayer.
When IOMAX claims that it can provide the 12 weapons-capable aircraft along with the spares, maintenance and training for about $130 million less, our government is not upholding that responsibility to our ally. Add in the fact that a significant proportion of the cost of the deal is, according to the Air Force, for "design, integration, test and certification of an armed version," it begs the question why the Kenyans are paying for the wholesale design and integration of a new aircraft when a perfectly effective piece of equipment already exists. Given that Defense Department foreign aid to Kenya in 2015 was $107 million, this is not a marginal sum.
My goal here is for the Kenyans to get the equipment they need at an honest price and for our acquisition system to operate in a fair and equitable manner without favoritism towards any one business. Until I'm sure this is happening, I'm going to continue to oppose this sale.
Congressman Ted Budd represents North Carolina's 13th congressional district.