Small change, big difference

By September 29, 2016September 3rd, 2018Army ALT Magazine, Commentary
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One-size-fits-all spending rules don’t always serve the unpredictable needs of contingency contracting. Here’s one simple fix.

by Lt. Col. William C. Latham Jr. (USA, Ret.)

“You may ask me for anything you like except time.” Napoleon Bonaparte


Sgt. Peter Streb of the 3rd Advise and Assist Brigade (AAB), 1st Cavalry Division (1st CAV) briefs local Iraqi workers at the start of a June 2011 day on Contingency Operating Station (COS) Garry Owen. The COS transferred to the control of the Iraqi Army later that year when the U.S. military prepared to end its mission in Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Rios, 3rd AAB, 1st CAV)

With more than half a trillion dollars in defense spending at stake each year within the U.S. government’s budget, defense acquisition policy receives enormous attention in our nation’s capital, from Capitol Hill to the Pentagon to the lobbyists, scholars, think tanks and publications (including this one) devoted to national security. This attention is well-deserved, given the stakes. Better equipment provides American military forces with a critical technological edge while giving pause to would-be adversaries.

The time-consuming process of developing, testing, producing and fielding advanced weapon systems focuses primarily on the needs of the future. The immediate impact of acquisition policies receives significantly less attention. These policies, however, can dramatically influence the outcome of current military operations and, in turn, the success or failure of our national security strategy.

Nowhere is this impact more visible than in the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) area of responsibility, where contractors outnumber American service members. A recent DOD report lists nearly 43,000 contractors supporting U.S. military operations in the region, including 26,435 in Afghanistan and 2,485 in Iraq. The result largely of changes in our strategic environment over the past 25 years, operational contract support has now become an important part of how the Army does its job.

Contingency operations are, by definition, unpredictable. To succeed, Army commanders must coordinate with and provide support to other U.S. military services, other U.S. governmental agencies and coalition partners, while complying with American and host-nation laws, policies and procedures. These myriad rules and regulations ensure fairness and prevent waste, fraud and abuse of the acquisition system. Unfortunately, these safeguards also limit our ability to procure the necessary support in a timely manner, and they occasionally push commanders to sacrifice best value—the optimal choice in terms of quality and past performance, not just cost—in the pursuit of mission accomplishment.


Master Sgt. Joe Mancias, 36th Infantry Division Garrison Command noncommissioned officer in charge, directs local Iraqi contractors at Contingency Operating Base Basra, Iraq, in June 2011. The contractors, referred to as “the Blue Man Crew,” loaded up debris left from the move of Army and Air Force Exchange Service facilities. The author recommends a better balance of timeliness, regulation and best value for optimal results in contingency contracting missions. (Photo by Pvt. Andrew Slovensky, 362nd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

The massive leasing of nontactical vehicles such as sedans and sport utility vehicles during Operation Iraqi Freedom illustrates the unintended consequences of these fiscal restrictions. At the beginning of the American military surge in 2007, Multi-National Forces Iraq was spending more than $2 million a month on this requirement. Commanders would have saved millions had they simply purchased the nontactical vehicles necessary to support the mission, but equipment purchases above a certain threshold require “other procurement, Army” (OPA) funds. Because OPA funding was severely limited, commanders spent “operation and maintenance, Army” (OMA) funds to lease the same vehicles multiple times. “We probably wound up paying for those vehicles three times over,” observed one senior contracting officer familiar with the problem.

To avoid this problem, appropriations laws should change to provide senior commanders with latitude in reprogramming (transferring) operational funds. Current federal appropriations law, most notably the Antideficiency Act, “prohibits federal employees from making or authorizing an expenditure from, or creating or authorizing an obligation under, any appropriation or fund in excess of the amount available in the appropriation or fund unless authorized by law.” This restriction, which dates to the original Antideficiency Act passed in 1884, restricts government officials from spending funds they don’t have and further prohibits spending funds appropriated by Congress for purposes not intended by Congress.

These prohibitions make perfect sense within the routine, fairly predictable budget cycle in which most federal agencies operate. During contingency operations, however, military commanders must cope with mission requirements that change on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Because lives are at stake, these operations demand more speed and flexibility, not only from the American military forces performing these missions, but also from the organizations and resources provided to support them.


Local nationals contracted to assist with retrograde operations in Afghanistan remove wood at a site coordinated by the 4th Resolute Support Sustainment Brigade (RSSB) at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, in December 2014. The objective was to prevent financial and material waste and remove structures that did not meet safety standards. A plethora of laws, policies and procedures—from both the U.S. and the host nation—govern the U.S. military’s provision of support to its forces, other U.S. governmental agencies and coalition partners. (Photo by Sgt. Adam A. Erlewein, 4th RSSB Public Affairs)

Unfortunately, current fiscal laws are ill-equipped to respond to these emerging requirements. The laws themselves provide limited flexibility for responding to unforecast requirements, and the legislative process is generally slow to appropriate additional funds, and legislators are reluctant to permit federal agencies to reprogram existing funds from one appropriation to another.

An amendment allowing geographic combatant commanders to reprogram funds between different appropriations under exceptional situations, especially during the initial stages of a contingency operation, would immediately improve military responsiveness while allowing deployed contracting officers to buy smarter and faster. This limited authority would provide deploying forces with greater access to commercial support in theater, while enabling contracting officers to acquire the best support at the best value.

Just as importantly, it would remove a significant stumbling block from the timeline for opening a theater and rapidly building combat power. The senior commander would become accountable for any reprogramming decisions, and the legislative branch could retain control and fulfill its fiscal responsibility by establishing dollar thresholds on this reprogramming authority, auditing subsequent expenditures and investigating dubious command decisions.


Workers build a new aqueduct system in Afghanistan’s Khost province during Operation Enduring Freedom using funds from the Commander’s Emergency Response Program, which lets coalition leaders rapidly allocate resources to address local needs. The unpredictable nature of contingency contracting calls for greater funding flexibility to respond to emerging requirements, the author asserts. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Robert R. Ramon, 345th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

Current acquisition laws have created a deliberative review process designed to ensure that government officials in every federal agency, and especially within DOD, exercise an appropriate level of stewardship in spending taxpayer dollars.

This formal and time-consuming process does not always meet the needs of Soldiers deployed in harm’s way, however. Granting senior commanders the authority to transfer money between different defense appropriations during a crisis would demonstrate a sincere commitment to the success of our military operations and the welfare of our troops.

(This article contains the author’s own opinions and does not reflect the official policy of the Army or DOD.)

LT. COL. WILLIAM C. LATHAM JR. (USA, Ret.) directs the Army’s operational contract support course for the Army Logistics University at Fort Lee, Virginia. He has an M.A. in English from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and a B.A. in English from Georgetown University, where he earned his commission as a distinguished military graduate of the university’s ROTC program. He previously taught at the United States Military Academy at West Point and the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and is the author of “Cold Days in Hell: American POWs in Korea” (Texas A&M University Press, 2013).

This article will be printed in the October – December 2016 issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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