In an era of declining budgets, it is important that the Department of Defense (DoD) finds ways of saving money. One important way of doing this, and at times exploiting advances in technology to also improve performance, is by acquiring platforms, systems and products from commercial industry. The defense industrial base often produces very specialized and highly complex items in small production lots (think the M-1 tank, F-22 fighter and Virginia-class nuclear attack submarine). Commercial industry is known for large production runs of items that are largely alike, giving it the ability to leverage the learning curve and their supply chain to reduce prices. Look at the I-Phone or Android, which happen to be nifty pieces of equipment but are remarkably cheap because they are produced in the tens of millions. At times, commercial industry also has produced advanced technologies that are as good as anything that could be achieved by a unique military development program. Engine and generator technology for both aircraft and warships are examples of technologies from the commercial sector found widely applied by the military.
Two of the most notable current examples of DoD going the commercial industrial base to acquire major capabilities are the KC-46A aerial refueling tanker and the P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Both are derivatives of commercial platforms; the KC-46 based on the venerable Boeing 767 wide body and the P-8 a derivative of the extremely popular Boeing 737-800 single aisle passenger plane. The two programs take advantage of Boeing’s decades-long experience in producing both airframes, established production lines, a trained workforce operating well down the learning curve and proven, sophisticated supply chains. Because of these advantages, Boeing was able to move rapidly from design to production even while making substantial modifications to turn the commercial airframes into military aircraft. The KC-46A contract was awarded in early 2011; the fourth and final test aircraft is moving down the production line towards completion in the next few months. The P-8 program, awarded in 2004 has already delivered 13 production aircraft to the U.S. Navy and 3 initial aircraft to India. Measured against traditional military aircraft program, these are lightning speeds.
It is ironic that these remarkably successful programs have lately been criticized by the Director, Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E). This office recently released a report on the P-8 that criticized the aircraft as currently not effective for the mission of hunting submarines or performing reconnaissance over large areas. It has also warned that the KC-46A program may see a six to12 month delay in reaching operational testing as a result of the need for more developmental testing and initial crew training.
Before the DOT&E reports cause concerns, consider the views of the Pentagon’s chief acquisition official, Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (AT&L) Frank Kendall, on the P-8. According to Kendall, the P-8 is a “good product” and represents a “relatively successful program.” Why the disconnect between DOT&E and AT&L? Apparently, DOT&E didn’t bother reading the program plan for the P-8. Kendall responded to the DOT&E report in recent testimony before the House Armed Services Committee saying “the capabilities that the DOT&E report talked about not being there are underway. They’re coming. We’re going to move onto wider-area surveillance capabilities I think within a few years. So the aircraft actually is, I think, a relatively successful program despite the tone of that report.”
The DOT&E organization was intended to be an advisor to the Secretary of Defense to ensure that programs were able to demonstrate operational effectiveness in realistic testing. In recent years its role has morphed from protecting the welfare of our warriors to a roadblock to their receiving important new capabilities. The disagreement between DOT&E and AT&L on the P-8 has been repeated with other programs, notably the F-35. In both cases, DOT&E apparently doesn’t take into account that virtually all major defense programs involve the phased introduction of capabilities. The same is true for software. The F-35 program always intended to operate initially with a software system that was less complete that the full up version. Frankly, without a degree of concurrency in development and production the military would have to wait until the “gold standard” version of a platform was developed and tested before it could begin production. The Government Accountability Office recently reported significant improvement in the F-35 program; DOT&E continues to carp. Apparently, DOT&E doesn’t understand how defense production programs work.
By all reasonable measures, the KC-46A and P-8 are good programs that are making fast progress and will provide significantly enhanced capabilities for the military. DoD clearly is benefitting from making greater use of the fruits of the commercial industrial base.
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