Everyone knows the old saw that time is money. It is the basis for the practice of just in time delivery which is at the heart of the modern global economy. The movement of information and ideas is becoming ever faster. The pace of change in technology is increasing, and the cycle time in which new products can be developed and marketed is declining. This is happening everywhere, but in defense acquisition.
Unlike the rest of the commercial and high tech world, the Department of Defense is, at best, standing still when it comes to the pace of innovation. In fact, when you examine the timelines to develop and field a whole host of Cold War era platforms and systems, such as the U-2, Polaris submarine, Minuteman ICBM, F-15 and F-16 fighters and the M1 Abrams tank, it is hard not to conclude that the system is slowing down and taking longer.
The reason for this is not that technology has become more complicated. Try designing and building the first nuclear powered submarine, if you want a challenge. Moreover, we now have a host of tools such as computer-aided design, sophisticated multi-dimensional models and simulations and breakthroughs in ergonomics making it easier to design, develop and produce complex military systems.
The principal source of this problem is the acquisition bureaucracy. Simply put, it has no conception of the relationship between time and money, unless a program exceeds its schedule. To the contrary, bureaucracies have every incentive to extend the duration of programs, multiplying the number of reviews, adding to the length of time to develop requirements, promulgate a request for proposal, conduct the competition and let a contract. Then there is the Operational Test and Evaluation Office that apparently believes there is no such thing as testing too much or for too long because no platform or piece of hardware is perfect. The system has even found new ways of complicating and delaying the Department’s access to commercial technologies by requiring companies to provide cost and pricing information that they don’t collect, and protracting arcane debates over the definition of a commercial item.
An example of the value of time and the consequences of moving too slowly and acting with excessive caution is the Air Force’s program to replace its 17 aging E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar Systems (JSTARS). The JSTARS provides unparalleled battlefield surveillance, including the ability to track mobile ground targets. For the most part, the systems aboard the JSTARS to track targets, fuse data and transmit information are in great shape. But the aircraft themselves, 1960s era 707s, are aging rapidly and they are becoming difficult and extremely expensive to maintain. Every year the JSTARS continues in service, additional resources are required to keep them flying. A replacement airframe is needed and in a hurry.
It would seem easy to rapidly move the JSTARS functions to another platform, particularly given the fact that the Air Force has essentially settled on using an existing airframe, most likely a large business jet. Moreover, unlike most other major modernization programs that seek a leap forward in capability, the Air Force says it only requires that the new JSTARS be as good as the old one. “The intent is to build a capability that provides an equivalent to JSTARS. The Air Force is not planning to make it fundamentally different or make it significantly better in performance. The current capability is fantastic. The initial intent is to get a replacement out quickly and have the ability to spiral in better capability later on.”
So why is the Air Force planning to take 12 years to replace just 17 JSTARS aircraft with the equivalent capabilities aboard an existing aircraft? Several of the competitors for the program, representatives of both aircraft manufacturers and sensor companies, believe they can do it in about half the time. The Air Force’s proposed timeline is particularly puzzling given that it is facing a massive procurement bow wave with production ramping up on the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, KC-46 tanker, search and rescue helicopter and even the new long-range bomber. The additional time during which the old JSTARS will need to be maintained and R&D funds expended on the new aircraft can be translated into hundreds of millions of wasted dollars.
The answer is that for the Air Force’s acquisition bureaucracy, time has no value. In fact, a longer program is in the interest of the relevant bureaucracies. If programs can be stretched out this means more money and people. Because the acquisition system isn’t judged on its success in fielding capabilities expeditiously, why shouldn’t it take all the time in the world?
During the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon went so far as to create specially empowered organizations such as JIEDDO and the Rapid Equipping Force for the purpose of circumventing the existing acquisition system and delivering capability to the warfighter rapidly. When the nation is at war, time isn’t money; it is measured in lives lost.
The primary focus of the Pentagon’s acquisition system is to avoid mistakes. Better to save one dollar by spending $1,000 on protracted oversight, accounting and testing than to get something useful, but not perfect, into the hands of the warfighter. Only those in combat really have a need for speed.
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