PROCUREMENT reform is such an enduring issue in Washington, one is tempted to take a ``ho hum'' attitude toward Defense Secretary Cheney's recent stab at it. Reform proposals have flitted in before, only to pile up as the Pentagon's ponderous machinery creaked on. But past inaction, or inadequate action, doesn't have to determine the present. This time the plan may well be followed by action. An extensive military-procurement scandal is, after all, fresh in the public's mind. Equally important, the Pentagon under Mr. Cheney is in a period of decreasing military budgets, the result of both federal spending constraints and a changing strategic environment. The Soviet threat is receding; domestic priorities, after a time of huge military outlays in the early '80s, are reasserting themselves.
New thinking is called for at the Pentagon, and a leaner, more efficient, less abuse-prone acquisitions systems should be part of it. Many of the ideas in Cheney's plan - stronger civilian authority, less duplication of effort - are familiar from past calls for reform. That doesn't mean they've really been tried, however. Most of the secretary's proposals make sense. They're a good blueprint for action. What's needed, above all, is the will to implement them.
A test of that will is whether the new team of civilian officials in the Pentagon assert the kind of power implied in the Cheney plan. Will the undersecretary of defense for acquisitions be given the authority to run the system and overrule his counterparts in uniform? Incoming civilians are always at a disadvantage in knowing their way around the Pentagon, and the secretary's proposals do little to reduce the military's authority in procurement matters. The report does propose removing some military positions that simply duplicate or parallel civilian posts. That would be a good step. The same goes for stronger educational and training requirement for procurement officials. At present, many lack even a college degree. Acquisitions officers within the military, too, would have enhanced career status under the secretary's plan.
Cheney also envisions new bureaucratic structures to enhance efficiency. This may help, but it will have to amount to more than the management reshuffling almost every new secretary indulges in. Stronger ethics codes are another theme - but, again, active enforcement, carried out by officers who leave their desks and remind people of the law, is crucial.
The secretary anticipates it will take four years or more to put the reforms in place and realize the $30 billion he hopes to save. That's probably realistic. But we look forward to some much earlier indications that this Pentagon chief means what he says.