The Marines' process for meeting urgent warfighting needs in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa has been ineffective due to insufficient oversight from Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, VA, according to an internal audit obtained by sister publication Inside the Pentagon.
The Sept. 28 report, prepared by the Naval Audit Service for Navy and Marine leaders, criticizes the handling of troops' most pressing requests for equipment intended to fill key capability gaps.
The report slams Marine Corps Combat Development Command (MCCDC) for poor management practices identified between April 2006 and August 2007, but also notes improvements are under way.
The service concurred with the audit's recommendations, but a Marine official involved in the process is bristling at the criticism.
By definition, an urgent universal need statement (UUNS) is a request for a capability that, if not filled, jeopardizes a unit's mission or unduly increases the risk of casualties.
Marines submitted 113 such requests between Jan. 1, 2005, and Aug. 23, 2006, for weapons, communications gear and other items. Auditors examined 29 of these 113 requests.
The review found MCCDC "had not established adequate oversight for the UUNS requirements process to ensure solutions were effectively and efficiently delivered to the warfighter."
The UUNS process, at the time of the audit, was "not effective," the report states.
Auditors found the process takes too long.
The three-phased process begins when warfighters identify a capability gap and submit a request to MCCDC. Then MCCDC processes the request in the validation phase. Assuming a requirement is validated, it moves to the acquisition and development phase, which aims to field a solution.
On average, it took six months to complete the first two phases for the 29 requests reviewed. This is "excessive if the requirements are urgently needed by deployed or deploying troops," the report states. On average, the first phase took 74 days and the second phase took 105 days.
Of the 29 requests reviewed, seven resulted in fielded solutions, according to the report.
In its formal reply, the service counters that the first phase is out of MCCDC's hands, but notes a Marine Corps improvement effort recently enabled MCCDC to cut the duration of the second phase to 87 days.
Auditors concluded MCCDC "owns the UUNS requirements process," and is therefore responsible for establishing the guidance, direction, and oversight needed to ensure the process operates efficiently and effectively, the report says.
But the guidance that Marines have been using -- an administrative message issued last year -- does not define desired effects for the process, according to the report.
Auditors found that MCCDC had limited visibility throughout the process, Marine commands relied on different tracking systems, feedback was absent for fielded solutions and there were no established metrics.
"As a result, the effectiveness of the process could not be measured, the ability to accomplish the mission could be impacted, the potential exists for wasted resources, and delivery of required UUNS requirements to Marine Corps warfighters could be delayed," the report states.
This is not how the Marine Corps typically describes its process.
"I believe we're fielding the most well-equipped Marines in the history of the Marine Corps," Gen. James Mattis, a former MCCDC commander, recently said on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."
In an interview last week with Inside the Pentagon, MCCDC's Len Blaisol defended the Marine Corps process, arguing it is not ineffective, even though the Marine Corps officially agreed with the report's recommendations.
"Whether the process is effective is a matter of opinion," he said. "I happen to disagree with some of the findings by the Naval Audit Service and I advised them of that."
Blaisol is the director of the Marine Air-Ground Task Force integration division in MCCDC's capabilities development directorate. His division includes the capabilities processing branch, which has the mission of managing the UUNS process.
He acknowledged, however, "there is always room for improvement." The process has been tweaked many times over the years. Now more changes are being made.
To improve oversight over the UUNS process, the service concurred with a recommendation to issue a Marine Corps order defining the roles, responsibilities and desired outcomes of the UUNS process. That is expected to happen by next April, the report says.
The report also recommended MCCDC finish implementing a tracking system for the entire UUNS process, with access to real-time information for all requests. Further, auditors suggested MCCDC establish controls and oversight measures, including metrics and a feedback mechanism to measure the effectiveness of the process. These two recommendations were addressed Aug. 31 when MCCDC implemented an UUNS processing system, the report says. This system was established in response to the audit and the Marine Corps' internal Lean Six Sigma study.
Blaisol said the equipment urgently requested by warfighters these days is much more complex than previous requests, making the UUNS process appear slower. The time needed to process such requests varies, so the value of setting a standard for the processing time is "dubious," he said.
A simple request can take hours to handle, while more complex ones can take years, he said.
Blaisol insisted the Marine Corps was not surprised by the audit findings and had already been working on specific fixes.
When asked why no more than seven of the 29 requests reviewed resulted in fielded solutions, he said in many cases an UUNS seeks a particular material solution. Sometimes those solutions are already programs of record, or are on the verge of being fielded, so there is "no value in pursuing a different material capability when we're already procuring something that will do exactly the same thing," he said.
In other instances, the capabilities requested cannot be procured, he said. Sometimes a different capability is used to address the need, he added.
The question of whether the Marine Corps responded quickly enough to the 2005 UUNS seeking a Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicle has been debated in Washington this year. Marine Corps science adviser Franz Gayl has become a whistleblower, charging Marines and innocent civilians in Iraq died because MRAPs were not fielded more expeditiously. But the Marine Corps has stood by its MRAP decisions.
Blaisol, whose son served three tours in Iraq, insisted this week that officials involved in the UUNS process do all they can.
"Trust me, we're doing everything in our power to get these capabilities to the Marines as rapidly as possible," he said. -- Christopher J. Castelli