On this first day of the annual meeting of the Association of the United States Army I find it fitting to tell you about a considerably smaller group of industry advocates. While lesser known, I occasionally write about the Warrior Protection and Readiness Coalition (WPRC).
For the most part, I write about a very narrow segment of the defense industry; those businesses that concentrate on protecting our service members. As I’m sure you’re aware, the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Organizational Clothing and Individual Equipment (OCIE) industry historically has had a minimal presence on Capitol Hill, to the detriment of the needs of both the warfighter and industry. But not anymore.
Back in 2009, at the urging of DoD leadership, industry leaders took the initiative to bring a fragmented group of nine American companies together to speak with one voice to Congress on the need to sustain a industrial base. Never before in the history had the armed forces relied so heavily of rapid industrial innovation and production of personal protective equipment. No one wanted to see that capability go away due to the lack of a planning process. The result was the Warrior Protection and Readiness Coalition (WPRC), which has grown into a not-for-profit that enjoys an active membership of more than 40 companies dedicated to ensuring US warfighters and peacekeepers alike are properly supported and equipped for the full spectrum of missions.
I am proud to host this site and discuss many of these issues. Those of you who read, comment, and support this site through advertising are engaged daily not only with the US Department of Defense but also increasingly with foreign militaries. As our defensive posture continues to evolve and opportunities to sustain the domestic industrial base have diminished, the procurement process has become even more difficult at a time when the industry that supports the warfighter is extremely stressed.
Sequestration is our number one defense issue. The current standoff taking place between the President and Congress over the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is an example of the collateral damage caused by sequestration. To adequately fund DoD around the constrictions of the sequester, Members of Congress have used the Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account to add almost $85 billion dollars to meet the critical demands of our national defense. President Obama has repeatedly called this effort a “gimmick” and has threatened to veto the NDAA altogether. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees just approved a Conference Report containing this OCO funding. If the President vetoes the measure, more uncertainty remains around the necessary funding for the Department of Defense.
The result of this situation for our industry is continued uncertainty. Let’s face it. If there’s no budget, there are no orders for goods, and companies may well turn their efforts elsewhere, or close up shop altogether. This obviously directly effects the military. OCO funds are used with broad discretion, and while they may serve as a bandaid, they also create some havoc with the bean counters and lead to “feast or famine” situations for the military as well as their suppliers. You can’t conduct any long-term planning when the budget process is broken. Specific to our industry, you get a glaring lack of line item visibility for both PPE and OCIE. On top of that, the constraints of the Budget Control Act and sequestration have led procurement authorities to rely heavily upon lowest price/technically acceptable (LPTA) contracting methods in order to make those limited funds stretch as far as possible. While it sounds great on paper, choosing the lowest price over quality and best value for PPE and OCIE is a recipe for disaster both for the domestic industrial base as well as our warfighters.
Confronting these challenges head on may seem like an impossible task. You know as well as I do that not only are there current growing threats around the world (Russia, Syria, ISIS, North Korea) but the Berry compliant industrial base must be ready to meet unforeseen challenges within a moment’s notice. How many times to do we have to repeat history? Time and time again we have allowed our military’s industrial base to descend into disarray. The goal here is sustainment of capabilities; military as well as industrial.
The WPRC was founded to not only ensure the best available equipment for our warfighters and peacekeepers but to advocate on behalf of the American companies and manufacturers who provide the best available PPE and OCIE. Members and non-members alike have benefitted from their work. The WPRC has led the effort to discontinue the use of reverse auctions (RA) and Lowest Price/Technically Acceptable (LPTA) contracting for PPE/OCIE product categories. Margins are already thin and these types of purchases have resulted in winning bids that are just too good to be true. Over time these methods of procurement have led to missteps, including the procurement of substandard PPE. Just this year, the companies who are part of the WPRC worked together to successfully secure language in the NDAA that states:
“The Secretary of Defense shall ensure that the Secretaries of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, in procuring an item of personal protective equipment or a critical safety item, use source selection criteria that is predominately based on technical qualifications of the item and not predominately based on price to the maximum extent practicable if the level of quality or failure of the item could result in death or severe bodily harm to the user, as determined by the Secretaries.”
This language is an important step in a continued process to ensure that our warfighters not only maintain a significant combat advantage but are as safe as possible while doing so. Senator Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), Chair of the Senate Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-VA), Chair of the House Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee have been champions for this issue in Congress.
Here’s another win that I bet you haven’t heard of. The WPRC has also achieved a notable success by supporting legislation that requires DoD to provide line-item funding for PPE and OCIE in future budgets. Beginning next year, Program Managers and industry will have visibility into the spending plans of the service branches, allowing for far better planning within the government and industry on the best way to allocate precious resources to support the service branches. Up to now, everything has been haphazard. This is huge and will help planners get their arms around what has been happening.
There’s still a lot of work to be done. I urge companies to pay attention to the work being done by this non-profit association and consider adding their efforts to the advocacy work that leads to these types of accomplishments. It’s critical to our industrial base and to all those who serve in uniform, and it deserves our support. Congress needs feedback from the uniformed services as well as from industry. If we let it operate in a vacuum it will never know how to improve the acquisition process.
Unfortunately, what they do day-to-day is often missed but if I had to sum it all up in a single sentence, I’d refer to them as “Our Voice of Industry on Capitol Hill.” While it has taken time to gain momentum, this voice has been pretty effective so far, and the more that companies band together to alleviate uncertainty, the better they can concentrate on providing the best support to our troops.