The U.S. strategic deterrent consists of a triad of nuclear-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) in buried silos, submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and nuclear-capable bombers. Each of these are very complex weapons systems. There is, of course, the nuclear warhead or bomb, itself a marvel of detailed and sophisticated engineering. For the ballistic missiles there is also the guidance system that allows the warhead to be delivered precisely to target, the propulsion system of special motors and fuels that throws the warhead thousands of miles, the special reentry vehicles that protect the fast-moving warheads as they speed through the earth’s atmosphere and the ground and submarine-based launch systems. A flaw in any single part of such a system or in the integration of the parts and the missiles could be rendered ineffective, along with the nation’s deterrent.
These complex systems need and, to date, have received very good care and management. Obviously, a technical problem with any part of the ICBM or SLBM systems, warhead, reentry, propulsion, guidance or launch element would be a very serious thing. So too would any management failure that might raise questions about positive control over nuclear weapons or the ability to operate the deterrent force under any and all conditions. Remember the incident a few years ago when a bomber on a nuclear-training mission actually flew across the United States with live nuclear-armed cruise missiles? The Air Force took a lot of heat for that — and other –incidents, and went to great lengths, including the creation of a new command, to ensure proper control, oversight and operation of its force of ICBMs and bombers.
Given the seriousness of its role as custodian of two of the three legs of the nuclear triad and its recent history, why is the Air Force taking a leap into the unknown by changing the way it contracts for the sustainment of the ICBM force? For the past 13 years, the Air Force has relied on a single overall integrating contractor to manage all aspects of the ICBM sustainment process. The Air Force directed the contractor who, in turn, guided work to one of a broad array of subcontractors. The current integrating contractor, TRW/ Northrop Grumman, has some 60 years experience in designing, managing, building and supporting ICBMs. Having a single “button” to press simplified the management process, allowing the Air Force to shrink its workforce and probably reduced costs. This system has worked extremely well.
Now the Air Force wants to take this structure that has worked well and, well, blow it up. Starting in 2013, the Air Force will take back overall integration and direction of ICBM sustainment and let a series of separate contracts for each major part of ICBM sustainment — ground segment, guidance, propulsion and reentry. The Air Force plans to do more engineering work in-house. There will still be an integrating contractor, but with a reduced role. The integrating contractor, who might have extensive talent in other areas, would be prevented from bidding on any of the other contracts. As a result, work in other areas might be given to the second best company. It is possible that there would be five major contracts with five different companies and only the Air Force to manage them all.
As if this weren’t bad enough, according to the July 29 edition of Inside the Air Force, this new integrating contractor “would essentially recreate the in-house engineering workforce that existed during the first 40 years of the ICBM program.” I guess this means that the Air Force is taking on the job of managing ICBM sustainment and performing engineering tasks without the necessary human resources to accomplish them.
As reported, the framework for the new contracting approach to ICBM sustainment is a disaster waiting to happen. No one has overall responsibility. Not only will the Air Force have to manage four, five or six contracts to start but if there are major new acquisitions, such as a new guidance system for all ICBMs, an additional contract will be awarded. The ICBM System Program Office (SPO) will be able to go around the integrating contractor to give separate and possibly conflicting direction to one or more of the other major contractors and the problem might not be discovered until there is a catastrophic failure of this vital weapons system. It is also possible that the companies with significant experience in building and sustaining ICBMs will refuse to bid on the integration contract because they are excluded from bidding on the other, more lucrative, hardware contracts. The result would be that a less qualified or experienced company could be in a position both to provide oversight of the program and to assist the Air Force in building in-house capability.
In its effort to justify messing with success, the Air Force is trotting out the dubious claim that it can save money by insourcing overall management of ICBM sustainment. If I have this right, the new approach replaces one contract with five or six, each of which requires management. It multiplies supply chains and management of everything from spare parts to engineering changes. It asks an in-house Air Force staff to take on responsibilities for work they have not done in 15 years. This means the SPO will have to acquire scarce talent by bidding up their rates, a sure guarantee of lower costs. Increasing competition over variable time lines multiplies uncertainty and risk which must be reflected in how the contracts are priced. The Air Force plans to do all this and claims that it will save money. How believable is this story?
It would be one thing if the Air Force wanted to take ten years to develop the in-house capability to manage ICBM sustainment, prove its claims of cost savings and explore the possible combinations of contracts that might make sense. But to plan on making such a radical change in 18 months without the necessary workforce in place is ludicrous. No, correct that. Since this proposed framework involves sustainment of one third of the nation’s strategic deterrent, it is irresponsible and potentially dangerous.
Find Archived Articles: