As the U.S. military prepares to turn over security responsibilities in Afghanistan to indigenous forces, a key issue for planners is assuring those forces have adequate air power. Once U.S. pilots are gone, the Afghans must be able to provide air cover for their troops on the ground, delivering a variety of munitions against surface targets and conducting reconnaissance on enemy movements. The Air Force had a plan for meeting this need that would have delivered 20 light attack planes to the country in time for the 2013 fighting season, but like so many other Air Force programs in recent years, the effort has gone awry. The service now says there will be an 18-month delay in delivering the “light air support” planes to Afghanistan due to errors in a competition it held, leaving precious little time to train local pilots before U.S. forces are gone.
It’s bad enough that the Air Force acquisition community has faltered in meeting a vital, time-sensitive military requirement, but it now seems intent on compounding the error by not conducting a rigorous flight evaluation of the two planes that are competing. Realistic testing of proposed solutions to military requirements has been a core principle of acquisition reform for decades. It is particularly important in this competition, because the Air Force wants to buy “non-developmental” planes that it has never operated in a combat configuration. The rival planes are both single-engine turboprops that are supposed to meet the special performance needs of counter-insurgency warfare without presenting great training or logistics challenges to the Afghan military. But how can the service decide which plane is better without comparing how they fare in dropping bombs and conducting other real-world missions?
This seems like the worst of both worlds. First the schedule is aborted due to bureaucratic mistakes so that the planes don’t get delivered in a timely fashion, then the Air Force conducts a leisurely recompetition without even comparing their in-flight performance under real-world conditions. So guess what happens at the end of the recompete. The losing side protests, complaining that an inferior plane was chosen due to flaws in the selection process. The Light Air Support program is beginning to look suspiciously like America’s industrial mobilization effort in World War One, which didn’t manage to deliver any planes to the Western Front before Armistice Day.
A casual observer might conclude that having already conducted a year-long competition, the Air Force already knows everything it needs to know to make an award if it isn’t going to conduct a flight evaluation. But that seems to be par for the course when it comes to Air Force acquisition of aircraft — even single-engine turboprops. Remember how the tanker competition went? In the first round of competition it picked a winner based on criteria not even stated in the solicitation, and then in the second round it sent competition-sensitive results to the wrong teams. And let’s not forget the Darleen Druyun procurement scandal that ran in parallel with the tanker competition — a decade after that senior Air Force official steered awards to particular companies for personal gain, the government still hasn’t compensated companies that invested their own money in stacked competitions they had no chance of winning like the C-130 avionics modernization program.
The Air Force should rethink how it is approaching the recompete of the planes for Afghanistan. The process needs to be be fast and rigorous, including a flight evaluation. If the service can fix space acquisition — which it has — then it can fix the way it buys planes too.
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