Competition has become the mantra of the Department of Defense’s (DoD) acquisition corps. The Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics, Frank Kendall has gone on record saying “I think that nothing, nothing, works better than competition to drive cost down.” DoD has established metrics for competition, sort of like a quota system. Many more prime contracts are being competed. The idea is to the greatest extent possible to replicate the commercial marketplace.
Sometimes competition can be a good thing while at other times it merely adds time and cost to the effort to provide our warriors with first class products and services. It is particularly challenging when the competition begins only late in the development or production process. This may be necessary when an incumbent experiences unanticipated technical challenges. But DoD should assiduously avoid setting up competitions for their own sake, just to meet a quota or in order to avoid having to explain a sole source award.
One example of a successful effort to inject competition into the acquisition of high-end defense products is the Air Force’s development program for its Family of Advanced Beyond Line-of-Sight Terminals (FAB-T). These are terrestrial stations that will send and receive high priority national military traffic sent through the Pentagon’s network of Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and legacy Milstar communications satellites. The terminals will provide secure strategic and non-strategic command, control and communications that support the President and his combatant commanders when they direct nuclear and tactical forces. The original idea was to produce both ground terminals and a set that would be installed on the Air Force’s fleet of B-2, B-52 and RC-135 aircraft. However, due to tightening budgets, the Air Force has decided to forego, hopefully temporarily, the airborne portion of the program.
Two companies, Boeing and Raytheon are competing for the award, expected sometime in the first half of 2014. Boeing initially won the right to produce the FAB-T system in a head-to-head competition with Raytheon. However, Boeing experienced difficulties due, in part, to changing requirements by the customer. Rather than cancelling the procurement and starting over from scratch or dumbing down the system, the Air Force chose a different strategy. In 2012, it brought Raytheon back in to develop an alternative system. This was not just a show competition. Raytheon had enormous experience in designing, producing and sustaining AEHF terminals for a wide range of customers.
The result has been a real competition that has challenged both companies to bring their “A” game onto the field. According to published reports and company statements, both teams have responded extremely well to the competitive environment. In less than a year, Raytheon reported that it had completed all major design reviews, including the Critical Design Review, testing and demonstration of its FAB-T software, including the key Presidential and National Voice Conferencing capability. For its part, Boeing completed Functional Qualification Tests, flight tests involving ground and airborne command post terminals interfacing both with the AEHF and Milstar satellites, and environmental testing, as well as adding to its original configuration of FAB-T applications for Presidential and National Voice Conferencing.
The stage is set for a down select later this year. Whichever team wins, the Air Force is going to get a better product for the two having competed well on this program.
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