Air Force officials are considering ending a $6 billion missile program that was once the poster child of the Pentagon’s acquisition reform efforts.
A final decision on whether to continue funding production of the joint air-to-surface standoff missile (JASSM) is not expected until next spring. No matter the outcome, the troubles in the decade-long program speak volumes about the unintended consequences of procurement reforms that were supposed to save the Pentagon billions of dollars but have ended up costing dearly.
The Air Force so far has bought 600 of the $700,000 missiles from the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp. Although the company started low-rate production in 2001, the missiles still don’t perform as expected, said Maj. Gen. Mark D. Shackelford, director of global power programs at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
Another bugbear is an 18 percent rise in the cost of JASSM, which landed the program in the dreaded “Nunn McCurdy” list of Pentagon acquisitions that Congress says it will terminate unless the Air Force can successfully make a case that the technology is critical to military operations.
The Pentagon estimated that JASSM costs increased by $882.3 million — from $4.9 billion to $5.7 billion. Some of the added cost was attributed to upgraded features, but most of the increase, about $600 million, was to fund a “reliability improvement program” to address the performance shortfalls.
The Air Force is seeking $200 million for JASSM in the fiscal year 2008 budget, but Congress is expected to cut the request by up to 20 percent, as a result of the latest performance failures.
Shackelford characterized the current JASSM woes as “fallout from the age of acquisition reform.” The design of the missile was “sound,” he said in an interview. But the weapon was rushed to production, and that was when the problems started. “Not fully understanding the configuration of the fully built system has been a weakness,” Shackelford said.
A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said the company’s agreement to work with the Air Force to improve the reliability of the missile “acknowledges the responsibility of both parties.”
When the JASSM program got under way in 1996, it was hailed as a model procurement effort because it did away with many of the traditional tests and technical specifications in order to expedite the development. The project went from “proposal receipt to contract” in 47 days, according to Air Force charts presented at a 2003 industry conference. In those charts, the JASSM program manager noted that relaxing the standards was “controversial but effective.”
The Air Force acquisition chief back then, Marvin Sambur, nominated JASSM for the David Packard Excellence in Acquisition Awards for 2003. Sambur praised the program for producing a cruise missile “in record time” and for challenging “all processes, rules and regulations … to eliminate non-value added processes.”
That optimism has diminished considerably. Air Force officials will not predict whether the program can be salvaged, but the lessons from JASSM most certainly will be applied to future weapon systems, Shackelford said. The missile will undergo several tests after which Air Force evaluators will determine if the weapon is reliable. Top procurement officials will decide in March 2008 whether the Air Force should make the case to Congress that JASSM ought to remain in production.
The manufacturing process has to be re-evaluated, said Shackelford. “It’s important that we step back and look at the configuration control,” he said. The contractor is not the only culprit here, he added. “It’s attention to detail, government involvement — more so than we’ve had so far — and the realization that we as a customer have an expectation of a reliable product.”
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