Lawmakers to Military: Don't Buy Another 'Money Pit' Like F-35

Two U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs, assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, conduct flight training operations over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)
Two U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning IIs, assigned to the 4th Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, conduct flight training operations over the Utah Test and Training Range on Feb 14, 2018. (U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Andrew Lee)

Lawmakers on Wednesday put senior military officials on the spot to explain how current acquisition reform efforts will prevent costly programs such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter from becoming "too big to fail."

Members of the House Armed Services Committee met with acquisition chiefs from the Army, Navy and Air Force to assess how the services are using new congressional authorities to streamline the bureaucratic policies and procedures that often prevent combat systems from being fielded efficiently.

Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., asked what acquisition reform efforts are doing to prevent the services from becoming wedded to sacred-cow programs that are designed to do too much.

"If we could go back to 1997, we would not build the F-35 the way we are currently building it. It is, at the moment, too big to fail," Smith said. "It's the only attack jet fighter we have; we've got to build it. We've got to make it work.

"What would we do differently in the way we constructed that program, so that it didn't become the money pit that it has become?" he asked.

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William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said the service focused on starting with a capable base model and improving on it, rather than trying to create the perfect platform.

There is a lot of discipline to spiral development, Roper said, "as opposed to just kicking off a large program where there are multiple difficult things to do, hoping that they will somehow all work out and in the end you'll get the system that you want."

James F. "Hondo" Geurts, assistant secretary of the Navy for research, development and acquisition, said the Navy has taken this approach with its submarine programs over the past two decades.

"We have come up with a good submarine, and now we have got a very disciplined, rapid way to quickly get new technology onto those submarines," he said.

"That's a way that we have tried to approach it, so you have a good base platform with a lot of resiliency and margins, so you can quickly iterate to wherever the direction goes, because we won't know what we need on those platforms 10 years from now," Geurts said.

The Army's new acquisition reform effort involves the creation of "cross-functional teams" that will focus on rapid development of new platforms in the service's six new modernization priorities -- long-range precision fires; next-generation combat vehicle; future vertical lift; a mobile and expeditionary network; air and missile defense capabilities; and soldier lethality.

The concept is designed to embrace rapid prototyping and involve warfighters at the beginning and keep them engaged throughout the process.

HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, questioned whether these CFTs will become part of the problem in the future.

"Why aren't these cross-functional teams that the Army has set up just another layer of bureaucracy?" he asked Bruce Jette, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology.

To Jette, the main problem with Army acquisition is there is no "tight linkage with the people that generate the requirement; the technology people who can bring the capabilities to the table that you want to think about as you are looking to the future; and the acquisition people who actually have to get into the field."

"The idea of the cross-functional teams is to bring that entity together in one place for specific areas of critical importance," Jette said.

"The biggest issue to me is, I see the value, and I want to see whether there is decay in the value over a long period of time," he said. "I don't think there is any intention with the senior leadership to allow that to happen."

Lawmakers also wanted to know how the services, and Congress, will be able to measure if the acquisitions process improves over time.

"It seems to me that a lot of what we talk about is process changes, and what we ought to be looking at is what is the output," Thornberry said.

"Because it doesn't really matter if we write lots of laws and you all ... change the regulations -- if we don't have the best our country can produce getting to the warfighter faster, then all of this is for naught."

In the past, program managers have been given credit for following acquisition processes to the "nth degree," Jette said.

"We are going to be product-oriented," he said. "Accountability is not whether you follow the process in detail, but whether or not you generate a product."

In most cases, the accountability and balance sheets are based on costs within the programs, Roper said.

"What I predict we are going to see greater need for and demand for is to have time-based metrics -- tracking things like time to contract, time to complete development, time to field," he said.

"Time to fail would be a great one, "Roper added, "if we want to quit having these large programs where the failure occurs 10 years after the start."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

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