Chair Force Engineer

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Broken Acquisition

I was reading a blurb on StrategyPage the other day which claimed that the "B-3 bomber" was being developed in secret, much like how the B-2's development was highly classified. While I've seen no evidence to corroborate the claims of StrategyPage, it did make me think about the words of an AFRL Captain during a recent meeting: the acquisition system is broken. It can be said, somewhat facetiously, that the next bomber will be obsolete by the time its protracted development is completed, and it will take the entire Gross Domestic Product of this great nation to afford just one copy of the next bomber.

The stark reality of the situation is that any new-start program is going to be a protracted and expensive development. In order to ensure that the program achieves an Initial Operational Capability at a reasonable date, the people determining the mission requirements will need incredible foresight to determine relevant mission requirements for a program that may be two decades away from seeing service.

Gone are the glory days when a fighter plane like the P-51 Mustang could move from design stage to first flight in 120 days. The current example is the F-22 Raptor, which took six years to move from source selection to first flight, and another eight years between first flight and IOC. There can be no doubt that the complexity of combat systems has grown exponentially. As long as the US Military insists on purchasing the most complex combat systems that money can buy, every new development will be lengthy and expensive.

There is a good argument to be made in favor of bucking the complexity trend. For example, the F-22 Raptor, at a cost of >$120 million per copy, has enough missiles to engage eight enemy fighters. It doesn't take a genius to see that an enemy can find nine cheap fighters and nine suicidal pilots (for less than the cost of a single F-22) and win the dogfight through lopsided numerical superiority.

The argument against complexity is the reason why the F-16 was conceived in the first place. Because the F-15 Eagle was so expensive (for its time,) it was conceived that a smaller and simpler fighter could complement the expensive F-15. The F-16, by contrast, was envisioned as a no-frills, lightweight fighter that would drop unguided bombs in the daytime and defend itself with short-range missiles. The problem is that the Air Force did not stay true to the original F-16 concept. The airframe was burdened with long-range missiles like AMRAAM, and avionics that enabled the F-16 to drop guided weapons during all weather types and all times of day. The avionics alone account for over 90% of the cost to manufacture a modern fighter aircraft, and they also consume a significant portion of the development cost and schedule.

As long as we insist on purchasing complex combat systems, Congress will have to realize that new-start developments can only be justified if they are amortized over a long production run. Naval acquisition, long held up as the poster-child for the broken DoD acquisition system, has several recent examples of uneconomical developments.

The Seawolf-class submarine was conceived in the 1980's as the ultimate boat for autonomously tracking and killing Soviet subs. When the Cold War ended, the Seawolf class was capped at just three boats. The Virginia class submarine was then launched as a smaller, stealthier boat that was more relevant to modern warfare. The problem is that the Virginia class consumed even more development dollars, and the cost per boat is actually more expensive than the Seawolf-class sub.

The DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyer is another example. It's a hugely-expensive program that may be capped at just two ships, in favor of continued production of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

The US Air Force recently suffered the most expensive plane crash in history, losing one of its 21 B-2 bombers after an engine failure on takeoff. The B-2 was so expensive because its development budget was justified by a planned purchase of 132 aircraft. When the total buy was reduced to just 21 airframes, the development costs made up a large fraction of each example's total cost. While the Soviet threat evaporated, continued production of the B-2 still made sense, for no other reason than to amortize development costs while creating replacements for elderly B-52's.

Because new-start programs are so slow and expensive, there's been a recent trend towards modifying existing airframes to meet the needs of new missions. The KC-45 tanker is a good example of this, relying on the Airbus A330 as a starting point. While a point-design tanker (likely based on the Boeing Blended Wing Body concept) would be best for the warfighter, the KC-45 promises to get a mission-capable product to the field in a shorter amount of time for a lot less money. But there are other times when modifying existing airframes isn't such a good idea, especially when requirements creep threatens to make the program much more expensive (the VH-71 presidential helicopter immediately comes to mind.)

Unless the military acquisition community takes an active approach to fighting the growing complexity of combat systems, the acquisition business will continue to be broken. And unless Congress and the budgeteers start to realize that massive development budgets for new-start programs can only be justified by lengthy production runs, every copy of a major combat system will be a hugely-expensive machine.