WASHINGTON ― Radha Plumb, President Joe Biden’s nominee to be the Pentagon’s No. 2 acquisitions and sustainment official, pledged to find ways to bring down the costs of sustaining the systems it buys.
“If confirmed, my focus would be on making sure we can identify as early as possible key issues and drivers of sustainment [costs] and then include that in early negotiations [with vendors],” she told the Senate Armed Services Committee at her confirmation hearing July 28.
Plumb, chief of staff to Kathleen Hicks, the Pentagon’s No. 2 civilian, also noted that the Defense Department is moving toward a more data-driven approach to tracking the sustainment needs of its weapons systems.
The comments came in response to questions from the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., who said the costs are so high the Pentagon is having trouble maintaining the readiness of some of its systems.
Pressed by Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, on whether the Pentagon needs to include the intellectual property associated with any major weapons system it buys as a means of controlling maintenance coats, Plumb said the Pentagon needs to do so to better manage its supply chains.
“That includes dealing with part obsolescence, and our ability to produce that in-house in more robust and resilient ways,” she said. “If confirmed, I commit to looking at ensuring that intellectual property and other solutions that can allow us to build in supply chain resilience to enable us to maintain and sustain warfighting capabilities at a much more reasonable cost.”
Before Plumb became Hicks’ chief of staff in February 2021, she was Google’s director of research and insights for trust and safety. Before that Plumb was Facebook’s global head of policy analysis after holding several senior staff positions at the Pentagon, Energy Department and White House National Security Council.
The Pentagon is struggling to control costs associated with sustaining its weapons systems. For the Lockheed Martin-made F-35 jet, sustainment costs are on track to become so expensive that the Air Force will either have to cut its planned buy or flying hours, the the Government Accountability Office found last year.
If confirmed, Plumb would serve with Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment William LaPlante at a time when contractors are reporting problems with supply chains, inflation and labor shortages.
Another nominee, Laura Taylor-Kale, Biden’s pick to be assistant secretary of defense for industrial base policy, fielded questions about industry’s ability — in light of those problems — to supply the U.S., allies and Ukraine, in the wake of Russia’s invasion.
Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., said the Pentagon, with Congress and the defense industry needs to boost production rates so that he U.S. military would be well supplied in the event of a conventional conflict with Russia or China. Taylor-Kale said she would work across the Defense Department to address gaps and critical needs.
“The war in Ukraine and COVID-19 really laid bare some of these vulnerabilities and these critical challenges that we’ve known for a while but are certainly more acute now,” said Taylor-Kale, adding that she’d work with LaPlante and defense firms to build more “hot production lines.”
The nominees aren’t expected to receive speedy confirmation, in part because Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., has been denying unanimous consent to advance Pentagon civilians on the Senate floor.
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, signaled he could do the same. He took the unusual step of announcing during Thursday’s confirmation hearing that he would block the nominations in connection with Interior Department opposition to a road to the Ambler Mining District in northwest Alaska.
“Until I get answers on Ambler at high levels, unfortunately, I’m not going to help move your nominations forward, even though I think you’re qualified ― and important positions,” he said. “But this is important. The same day the president holds a summit on critical minerals, they shut down on the biggest critical mineral supplies in America, maybe the world, because of their relentless war on the state of Alaska.”
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.