WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE -- The top leader at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center headquartered at Wright-Patterson says the sprawling global command could use 4,000 to 8,000 employees based on studies showing a need for a larger workforce.
Lt. Gen. Robert D. McMurry, who became AFLCMC commander in May, told this newspaper in an exclusive interview that the center was managing spending levels 35 percent higher than the mid-1990s with about half the workforce because of cuts to both civilian and military ranks.
"Given the force that we have, which is as small as it's ever been and the responsibility that we have, which is in dollars significantly larger than it has ever been in the last 20 years, we have to do our job extremely well," the three-star general said.
The bigger workforce would be throughout AFLCMC locations, which has more than 60 locations in the United States, but there is no timeline and funding to reach the target.
"We're probably going to try to bite that off in much smaller chunks," he said. "But given the challenges to growth, I think we would start at a much lower number than that and that's in deliberation now."
AFLCMC develops, tests and buys weapon systems in major acquisition programs such as the KC-46 aerial refueling tanker, the upcoming T-X or jet trainer replacement, and the future Air Force One presidential jetliners. The command manages a $216.4 billion budget, that includes multi-year U.S. and foreign military defense contracts, officials said.
'These things are difficult'
McMurry, who until recently led the Air Force Research Laboratory, gave the AFLCMC an overall grade of "B."
"I think we can always do better and I think we have to do better," he said. "...we owe it to the taxpayer, we owe it to the warfighter, and we owe it to ourselves.
"When you choose to do something that is very difficult, though, to build a new fighter, to build a new bomber, to buy a new (jet) trainer, to put in place new cyber capabilities, all of these things are difficult," he said. "There's almost always room for improvement. You will find problems as you go."
With 26,000 employees working at the AFLCMC and about half of those at Wright-Patterson, finding job talent is never ending. McMurry planned to meet with state leaders about a job skills pipeline to the base, from skilled trades to business and finances, engineering and numerous others.
"What we know about our workforce is we need pretty much every skill that you can bring," he said.
Acquisition reform, or changing how the Pentagon buys weapons, is a decades-long congressional pursuit spurred often by concerns of cost overruns and weapons development delays.
"I think that there's a tendency at any large bureaucracy to point at the bureaucracy as a problem," McMurry said. "My approach to that is I think that it's more of a balance. Our system for acquisition tries to meet a lot of competing interests. There is a genuine oversight requirement to make sure our taxpayer dollars are being spent right. There is a genuine need to meet combat capability, and there is a genuine need to make sure that we do this work as well as possible with as few mistakes as possible.
"That tends to drive a little bit of a cumbersome process," he said. "...What I would point out to people is, but look at what it delivers. What it delivers is extraordinary combat capability that is second to none for trained operators who are second to none."
To further acquisition reform, he added, "what I would like to see is an ability for us to provide delegation of decision-making authority to the lowest level possible to empower our people to get work done in a more timely manner," he said. "We always have to balance that with a genuine legitimate need for oversight so that that information about programs can be provided to the people who have that responsibility."
Billions of dollars on future aircraft
The Air Force has a multi-billion dollar list of aircraft purchases on the horizon, including more than 1,700 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, 179 KC-46 tankers and 80 to 100 future B-21 stealth bombers and other aircraft replacement programs.
Both the F-35 and the KC-46 have struggled to meet cost demands and schedule time lines.
For years, Lockheed Martin has faced delays and cost overruns on the F-35, but the company has said it's on track to deliver the aircraft at a price tag of about $100 million each. The Joint Program Office in Maryland manages development of the program and has oversight of three different variants of the stealth jet for the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and U.S. allies. An F-35 division office is within LCMC to develop technologies for the aircraft.
McMurry defended the jet despite critics who question its capabilities and cost.
"It is a phenomenal combat capability," he said. "It is not unusual when you bring that level of increased capability to run into development challenges and they have.
For pilots who have flown the jet, he added, "they are impressed with the capability that platform provides and they're not easy to impress."
"I think what we're going to find is that it delivers an extraordinary game changing-combat capability and we're just right at this point trying to make sure that capability is what was planned and it's delivered on a cost profile that's affordable."
The Air Force has a fixed-price $4.9 billion development contract with Boeing, which has caused the aerospace giant to absorb cost overruns. The company has missed an initial timeline for delivery, set for next January or about five months beyond initial projections. The Air Force plans to buy 179 of the jets over the next decade.
"The fixed price contracting is proving challenging for Boeing, but it stabilizes our budget requirements," McMurry said. "Boeing eventually will have the program squared away."