Air Force Could Speed up Acquisition of T-X Trainer, JSTARS

By Stew Magnuson
NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The Air Force may not be doing a technology risk reduction phase with its upcoming T-X jet fighter trainer program, the service’s chief acquisition official said Sept. 15 at the Air Force Association annual conference.
That could speed up the schedule of replacing the 50-year-old plus aircraft the service currently uses to train its jet fighter pilots.
“Schedules” has been the buzzword at this year’s conference. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James on the first day introduced its new acquisition strategy dubbed “should-schedule.”
The should-schedule approach will work in a similar manner to an acquisition management tool the service has been using called “should-cost,” said James.
Unlike should-cost, the new should-schedule strategy will focus on delivery time, James said. “We asked ourselves, ‘Can we develop a structure that challenges us and our industry partners to deliver faster than the schedule determined as part of the independent cost estimate?’”
“If we can collectively beat the historical developmental schedules and reward behavior in government and industry that speeds things up, we  have a real chance to make a difference,” James said.
Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Bill LaPlante noted the service has loads of data saying that it is saving money on programs  through new acquisition strategies. What isn’t changing is the problem of schedule delays. They aren’t becoming worse, but they aren’t improving, either, he said in a speech and later to reporters.
Industry wants the Air Force to be transparent as to what the requirements are as far in advance as possible, and to give it time to work on them. “That’s what we’re trying to do with T-X,” he said. The Air Force has published the requirements and is now gathering comments. It’s working on a cost capability analysis. “We are being extremely open with industry as we approach the release of the [request for proposals], which will be in about one year,” he said.
Since potential competitors have aircraft that are far along in their designs, the Air Force is “probably” going to skip an early risk reduction phase, he said. It may go directly to a first round of awards to build potential aircraft.
The question was then asked of LaPlante if the schedule could be sped up for the Joint Surveillance Targeting Attack Radar System, another rapidly aging aircraft that the Air Force must replace in the coming years. Two major industry competitors have said they could deliver aircraft several years ahead of the Air Force schedule.
“We would all like to do that with the caveat that we want to keep the competition. We would like to have things faster. We always want things faster,” he said.
The should-schedule strategy is starting out with lesser-known, smaller programs. “There is no reason we can't start using that philosophy in how we do acquisition in our bigger programs,” LaPlante said.
The Air Force has three JSTARS industry teams on contract to do risk reduction. The idea is to end up with a mature design, do a downselect, “Then hopefully move fast,” he said.
“We always have a bias of optimism in acquisition,” he said. Independent cost estimates that look at historic data usually throw cold water on those who are overly positive, but the “should-cost” system challenges them to beat the auditors’ predictions, he said. It is similar to those who can say they can move a schedule to the left, he said.
“If they say, ‘I can do that program faster,’ I say ‘you might have a chance. Prove it,’” he said.
“I will say it very directly. I would love to pull … [JSTARS] to the left and see if we can get that [initial operating capability] as left as possible,” LaPlante said. But until there is a Milestone A or Milestone B decision on the program, no IOC is set in stone, he said.
Talking about initial operating capability before such milestone decisions is like talking to a one-year-old child about their college plans, he said. “It’s interesting, but not terribly meaningful.” Once there is a contract award and milestone B is passed, then you have more knowledge, he said.
“We are working hard to get the JSTARS recap into a milestone A decision,” he added. There will be a meeting about it on Sept. 18 at the Pentagon, he said.  
The new “should-schedule” movement will give incentives to industry and program managers, he added. “But you’re going to have to prove it. You can’t just show us a brochure that says, ‘I can do it.’ You’re going to have to actually see it happen as the program develops.”
“Industry will always say things they think they can do and should. We should give them an opportunity. But what we want to do is give them a competition. I would like to get to a point in general where we get industry teams on contract, do risk reduction … and then fire a starting gun.”
LaPlante gave some insight into the highly secretive long-range bomber program. An award is expected “soon,” he said. Those who give a more exact timeline don’t know what they are talking about, he said.
“The people that are talking don’t know what’s going on. And the people that know what’s going on aren’t talking,” he said.
Risk reduction was carried out on the program for several years, he said. The industry teams will have brought the level of designs to a maturity that is “almost unprecedented,” he said. They were well thought through, fixed requirements. “We are going to have a very good execution plan,” he said.
One of the few data points on the long range bomber that the Air Force has spoken about publicly was the $550 million per aircraft price tag. Making that known was an incentive for those working on the program behind the scenes to keep requirements fixed and not to add anything that would raise that figure, he said.
“It’s going to be done soon. Everything is going extremely well,” he added.

Topics: Aviation, Tactical Aircraft, Business Trends

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