The Army Handgun: A New Poster Child for Acquisition Malpractice?


A handgun is not an aircraft carrier.

I respect the intricacy and complexity of the features in a military pistol. And I have no position on the one from Sig Sauer that was chosen or how it stacks up against other contenders. But the Army’s search for a new service pistol officially began in 2011 — long before that if you include the years when concerns with the existing M9 Beretta first emerged. More than a decade by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain’s own estimates.

The system is broken.

Consider what went down in the handgun buy: There were a couple years of information-gathering industry days. There was a draft solicitation that noted an expected date for a final bid request, but that got pushed back and yet another industry day was scheduled. And there was Beretta, the incumbent, which pushed back on the planned replacement, then formally proposed altering the existing contract, so it could provide a different model that would address the concerns for less money. That, of course, was something government had to consider. More time.

So, what the market got in return for supposed due diligence was delays, often with an explanation that read something like this: “to allow for improvements to the RFP as a result of feedback received from Industry.”

And Army soldiers continued to wait. As Sen. Joni Ernst said during the confirmation hearings for retired Marine General James Mattis earlier this month, “The joke that we had in the military was that sometimes the most effective use of an M9 is to simply throw it at your adversary.” That’s less a cut on the Beretta handgun and more a slam on the process, which includes so much bureaucracy that a product is too often a dinosaur by the time its replacement actually happens.

It wasn’t that long ago when government was forced to look long and hard at how it procured cybersecurity products and services. The existing model was just too slow and arduous to keep up with the threat. While still not perfect, new models came out to enable agencies to roll out cyber products and services fast. I note this not to imply that a handgun is any more like a cybersecurity tool than an aircraft carrier, but rather to point out that acquisition models can be adapted. And the much-feared prospect of procurement reform does not need to be some massive undertaking that transforms how the Pentagon and all agencies do business with industry, across all markets. 

Companies want fairness, but they also want predictability. And excessive bureaucracy in the name of fair competition, where contracting officers treat all competitions with kid gloves in fear of getting reprimanded if something goes awry, is counterproductive. It will simply drive companies not to bother, which in turn will cause competition to deteriorate.

Diligence is one thing. Foolishness is another.  

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