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Second Guessing BAMS

BAMS.jpgI started covering the US Navy's off-again/on-again Broad Area Maritime Surveillance (BAMS) program about five years ago. It's been back on for two years and -- last I checked -- poised for a contract selection decision in five days.

This makes me sad because I just thought of an obvious angle for a BAMS story that I've missed somehow for the last five years.

If I had the chance to re-interview all of the competitors and USN program officials, here's the first question I would ask: Why is this a winner take-all award instead of a split-buy?

The competitors for BAMs are the Northrop Grumman RQ-4N Global Hawk (high-altitude, turbofan, active electronically scanned arrays), Lockheed Martin/General Atomics Mariner (medium-altitude, turboprop, mechanically scanned arrays) and Boeing/Gulfstream G-550 (high-altitude, turbofan, optionally manned, multiple active arrays).

Each product is basically an off-the-shelf platform modified to meet the USN's requirement. The USN is not paying to design a new aircraft. It's essentially buying a la cart. That's probably why each platform offers vastly different operational strengths and weaknesses.

This competition isn't a choice between two discreetly differerent rivals, like the YF-22 versus the YF-23. This is more like the YF-22 versus the B-1. Each platform is a completely different capability, but both are useful for their intended purpose.

I agree there are downsides to a split buy award: the upfront costs are higher than a winner-takes-all award, you lose some of the marginal benefits of commonality and training gets more complicated.

But there are other advantages. The USN would not be beholden to one contractor for BAMS for the next two or three decades, but could keep playing the two teams off each other over the life of the program. Instead of a narrowly focused solution, the USN's operators could employ the platform that makes the most sense for each mission.

Not to mention the fact that Congress tends to like split buys, as it spreads the jobs more broadly and subjects the defense industry to greater competition.

I'm not saying a split-buy is the best answer for BAMS, but rather that it's an important and seemingly logical question that I should have asked long before now.

(Full disclosure: my wife works for Lockheed.)

-- Steve Trimble

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