Perrys COTS legacy expected to endure under Cohen

Jan. 1, 1997
WASHINGTON - The extraordinary era of William Perry at the Pentagon is over, and the building will never again be the same.

by John Rhea

WASHINGTON - The extraordinary era of William Perry at the Pentagon is over, and the building will never again be the same.

The diffident mathematics professor from Pennsylvania probably accomplished more in his three years as secretary of defense than any of his predecessors. He directed a successful overseas military operation - the peacekeeping mission in Bosnia - and he managed the behind-the-scenes details of removing nuclear weapons from the former Soviet Union. Far more important for the defense industry, he initiated sweeping acquisition reforms in the face of bureaucratic resistance.

Now, after the appropriate changing-of-the-guard ceremonies, he`s going home to San Francisco to write his book about the experience. He will have plenty to write about.

Perry came to the job well prepared and more than lived up to expectations. When he was named to the post, Washington newspapers reported in his biography that he "had been involved in investment banking in San Francisco," which is like saying Sonny Jurgensen had been involved in professional football in Washington.

He also knew where the bodies were buried at the Pentagon from his previous stint during the Jimmy Carter Administration as deputy secretary of defense under Harold Brown. It is from that experience that he was able to leave his most enduring legacy, acquisition reform. That`s going to be a tough act to follow and the greatest challenge for the incoming secretary of defense, retiring Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine.

The encouraging news is that Perry`s move away from gold-plated, service-unique, business-as-usual procurement is likely to endure. Perry`s landmark June 1994 directive designating commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware as effectively the "default setting" has built up sufficient momentum as to make backsliding difficult. Industry leaders themselves now have a vested interest in these reforms, and it would do well to communicate this interest to Secretary Cohen and Congress.

Both the industry and the military establishment have too much financial and emotional capital invested in streamlined procurement generally and COTS specifically to try to turn back the clock now. Dwindling defense budgets driven by the need to balance the budget by 2002 and introduce some sanity into such entitlement programs as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid add further impetus to this trend.

The unsettling news is that, despite Defense Secretary-designate Cohen`s three terms in the House and three terms in the Senate (including membership on the Armed Services Committee of the latter), he does not bring the kind of management experience to the job that his predecessor did. The last time he managed a bureaucracy (of sorts) was when he was mayor of Bangor, Maine, in 1971-1972. Even after 24 years in Washington, he`s in for a rude shock when he has to cut through Pentagon obfuscation from the inside rather than from the loftier heights of Capitol Hill.

President Clinton is to be commended for his attempt to achieve bipartisanship in the critical area of defense policy by nominating an individual who is a Republican and a legislator, but neither quality is a guarantee of success.

Robert McNamara was nominally a Republican when President Kennedy chose him (and President Johnson retained him) in the 1960s, but he is best remembered for the Vietnam war and the F-111 fighter unbeloved by the Air Force and the Navy. President Clinton`s first secretary of defense, Rep. Les Aspin, D-Wis., former chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is probably best forgotten.

What Cohen can do for starters is one of the things that Perry did so well: represent the U.S. defense establishment around the world. Perry was the most traveled defense secretary in the 49 years since President Truman created the office, and he gave the position - and the establishment - considerable visibility. It`s obvious that Cohen will have a rapport with Congress, as Perry did, and the administration will need all the rapport Cohen can bring it.

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