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News | March 15, 2023

Commentary: Like ‘M.A.S.H.’ crew, DLA survived scrutiny

By Colin J. Williams DLA Historian

In the television series “M.A.S.H.,” an army hospital staff in Korea repeatedly saves itself from being disbanded by last-minute demonstrations of its effectiveness. While the Defense Logistics Agency has never faced the threat of dissolution, Congress and the Defense Department have several times proposed severing offices not connected to the agency’s core mission. Like the "M.A.S.H." cast’s performance in the operating room, however, DLA has proven it manages even ancillary tasks more efficiently than other parts of the federal government.

An example occurred after Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates issued a Fourth Estate efficiency drive in January 2011. As a non-service component, DLA was involved in six studies that jeopardized three programs: school lunch sales, which DOD wanted to transfer to the Department of Agriculture; Strategic Materials, slated for the General Services Administration; and the Law Enforcement Support Office, also destined for GSA.   

Perhaps Gates’s staff believed these programs inefficient because they involved so few people. The largest, Strategic Materials, employed 80; the smallest, the school lunch program, only 12. How could an agency with tens of thousands of employees oversee programs run by just a few?

DLA leaders disagreed with this assessment and so did potential recipients. Audrey Rowe, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services, admitted she didn’t have “procurement and delivery system compatible” to DLA’s. Although USDA had once hoped to take over DLA’s fresh fruit and vegetable ordering and receipt system, it lacked the expertise to do so.

Steven J. Kempf, commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service, responded in similar fashion for Strategic Materials. He didn’t support receiving it because of its military focus. GSA had managed precious elements for the federal government before the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 1990 and 1991 transferred that authority to DOD. The reason: strategic materials were militarily, not commercially, important.

GSA had also run LESO before. Knowing what the program entailed, Kempf thought transferring it ill-advised. His administration would need a new law to handle sensitive items and demilitarize equipment. Given that DLA already had these authorizations, the only reason for pursuing a transfer was cost. As LESO “appeared . . . an efficient operation” under DLA management, returning it to GSA would be of “little or no benefit to the taxpayer,” Kempf said.

In “M.A.S.H.,” the person needing convincing is univariably a general who observes the hospital respond to a crisis. For DLA in 2011, the individual needing convincing was already an agency supporter. Alan F. Estevez, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and material readiness, not only accepted DLA’s recommendations but also persuaded Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton B. Carter and Defense Secretary Gates that existing efficiency should be retained rather than reinvented.

DLA kept offices subjected to Gates’s Fourth Estate efficiency drive because their operating costs involved more than payroll. For school lunch sales, they included maintaining an electronic ordering system. For Strategic Materials and LESO, they included investments in authorities and skills. Contrary to what was expected, size made the agency more efficient. As with “M.A.S.H.,” the closer superiors looked, the more they found.