Outgoing Air Force Official Debunks Acquisition Myths

By Sandra I. Erwin

Few Washington policy makers truly understand how the Pentagon develops and acquires weapon systems, and they tend to throw barbs at the Defense Department based on innuendo rather than hard data, said Air Force Assistant Secretary William LaPlante, who leaves office this week after three years as the service’s top weapons buyer.

“That’s what surprised me when I got into this job,” he told reporters Nov. 24.

There is an abundance of data that show a sharp drop in cost overruns and improved performance in Air Force big-ticket programs in recent years, but the widespread conviction on Capitol Hill and among the general public is that military procurement is broken. LaPlante believes there is a wide gap between perception and reality, and that has been a constant source of frustration. He announced last week he would leave his post to join The Mitre Corporation. He had planned to leave sooner, over this summer, but decided to stick around until the completion of the contract award for the Air Force long-range strike bomber, the service’s largest procurement in decades. Richard Lombardi, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, is expected to take over as acting assistant secretary.

“The situation in Air Force acquisition is pretty good right now,” LaPlante said. “Our net costs continue to come down. I have all the data.”

Naysayers can always choose to ignore the data, which is the reason why many lawmakers and analysts do not give the Pentagon credit for recent improvements, LaPlante said. The conventional wisdom that has taken hold stems from past embarrassments such the failed refueling tanker procurement in the early 2000s and a grossly over-budget logistics system that the Air Force terminated after a wasting a billion dollars. To say acquisition is broken is in vogue, but “maybe that was true 10 years ago.”

The tanker controversy still lingers in the air after all these years. “They assume it’s happening all over the place. But you can’t look at the highlights to know who won the game. You have to look at the holistic picture. And that’s not being done,” LaPlante insisted. “As people understand it more, you notice some of the rhetoric changes.”

The international arms market speaks volumes about the performance of U.S. weapon systems, LaPlante added. If Pentagon procurement were broken as critics contend, and “if it is the case that we can’t build anything, why are they screaming for American equipment overseas?”

While LaPlante defended the performance of major Air Force programs, he acknowledged that many systems are behind schedule, and that is not necessarily bad news. “Everyone tells you time is money,” but that is not always true in military procurements, he said. “In most programs you can push cost, schedule and performance but you probably are going to have to pick two out of three.”

A case in point is a new smart munition, called the “small diameter bomb” or SDB II, that the Air Force is buying from Raytheon under a fixed-price contract. The target price was $180,000 per weapon but the company produced it for $117,000 per unit. Because additional development to fix problems and testing was required, the program fell 18 months behind schedule. “The performance now is outstanding,” said LaPlante. “They still came in under price even with the delay.” How did that happen? During the 18-month lag, Raytheon reassigned its engineers to work on other projects rather than keeping an idle “standing army” that adds cost to the program.

Programs generally tend to be late, he said. “I don’t think we have a mechanism to encourage the system to go faster.” The law requires the Pentagon to produce “independent cost estimates” for each major program, and “everybody is incentivized to beat it. We don’t have anything like that on schedule.” Shortening schedules would be hard to do because of how the Pentagon works. “If I go faster, somebody has to find more money earlier to move it up. Programmers are always trying to balance things. They say, ‘If you go faster I don’t know where you get the money.’” Air Force leaders have launched a new experiment to speed up schedules, but it is too early to predict results.  

LaPlante delivered the following parting shots on some of the Air Force's key programs:

Long-Range Strike Bomber. “I feel confident” that the Air Force will prevail in an ongoing protest lodged by Boeing and Lockheed Martin that challenges the award made to Northrop Grumman. “I feel good about the program,” he said. “It’s not perfect. The challenge will be in the integration” of multiple technologies, he said. “We’ve been humming on all cylinders. After my departure, I have no concerns.”

F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Air Force is scheduled to declare its F-35A variant operational next summer. “It will happen,” said LaPlante. “Every year there’s a surprise with F-35, there’s always something — the engine, the helmet,” that is just the nature of this program. “The real challenge,” he believes, will be logistics support. There are 150 aircraft in the fleet today. There will be 1,000 in four years. “That is the challenge: the global sustainment, maintainers, training.”

JSTARS Recapitalization. The Air Force wants to replace its aging fleet of joint surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, known as JSTARS. But LaPlante warned the program faces an uncertain future. “There is still a debate in the building, outside the Air Force, on whether we do this or do something else,” he said. Senior defense planners are questioning why the Air Force should spend billions of dollars on JSTARS when there are other platforms, like the Global Hawk high-altitude drone, that could do aerial surveillance. “The requirement is where all the debate has been,” he said. “This discussion has been going on for years. These debates keep happening in a tough budget environment.”

Global Positioning System. The next-generation GPS III operational control system known as OCX has been in trouble for some time and it’s not getting any better. “OCX is going badly,” said LaPlante, declining to elaborate. According to the Government Accountability Office, the program needs $1.1 billion and four years more than planned to deliver “due to poor acquisition decisions and a slow recognition of development problems.”

Space Launch. The Air Force is in a bind following the shocking announcement that the military’s sole provider of sensitive satellite launch services United Launch Alliance will bow out of an upcoming competition to put GPS III spacecraft in orbit. ULA said it could not compete unless it received a waiver to circumvent a congressional requirement that bans the company from using Russian-made RD-180 engines in its rockets. ULA dropping out would leave startup SpaceX as the only viable competitor. LaPlante suggested that the waiver might be necessary. “You can get competition, two independent ways to get to space, or get off the Russian engines. I don’t think how you get all three in the next four years,” he said. “We’ve explained this over and over in congressional hearings. The space launch situation is serious.”

Topics: Aviation, Logistics, Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department

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