William LaPlante (US Air Force)
WASHINGTON — The Air Force is one step closer to having a new assistant secretary for acquisition, with all signs pointing toward a smooth confirmation of William LaPlante following a Senate hearing Jan. 16.
LaPlante, a former MITRE executive, has been the deputy acquisition official since April. If confirmed, he will become the first person confirmed to the position since Sue Payton retired in the spring of 2009. David Van Buren served in an acting role until his retirement in 2012.
LaPlante was joined at the hearing by Madelyn Creedon, nominated to be principal deputy administrator for the National Nuclear Security Administration, and Brad Carson, a former congressman now nominated as undersecretary of the Army.
Unlike many recent Senate hearings on presidential nominees, the mood was light in the room. In their opening comments, both Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., the chair and ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, indicated it was a matter of when, not if, the three nominees would be confirmed.
While the hearing was noncontroversial, senators used the opportunity to question LaPlante on several Air Force decisions.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, raised the specter of the Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) program. The ECSS was supposed to revolutionize the management of parts and equipment for the service, but was canceled after racking up a $1 billion price tag.
Ayotte asked LaPlante if he felt there was enough accountability to prevent another ECSS situation from arising. In response, LaPlante made it clear he would like to see further accountability.
“Do I believe we have firm accountability in the acquisition system and are comfortable of where it is? I do not, and it is something that, if I am confirmed, I will put extra emphasis on,” he said.
Asked about the Air Force’s new Combat Rescue Helicopter and whether a new start program is fiscally prudent, LaPlante showed a conservative side.
“In general, as you know, items like new starts, whether for helicopters or airplanes, we’re in an environment now where we have to be very careful about starting anything new,” he said. “We’re looking very carefully at what the tradeoffs are between something new and life-extending something we have.”
LaPLante said that while it’s more of a force structure question, he would be happy to work with senators on the issue going forward.
He also reaffirmed that the KC-46 tanker replacement program is moving on schedule, specifically noting that the trainer package selected in May will actually be $250 million less than the government’s cost estimate.
If LaPlante is confirmed, it would fill one of the several empty civilian slots for the service. Both Daniel Ginsberg, assistant secretary for manpower and Reserve affairs, and General Counsel Charles Blanchard departed the Pentagon at the end of 2013. Jamie Morin, the assistant secretary for financial management and comptroller, is still in place, but his nomination to head up the Pentagon’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation could be moved on at any time, leaving another potential vacancy.