Military acquisition is broken, crumbling, spastic -- pick whatever term you wish but the experts all say that many Pentagon programs are over budget and behind schedule.
As the Government Accountability Office said in its recent report to the Senate Armed Services Committee: "Systemic problems both at the strategic and at the program level underlie cost growth and schedule delays. At the strategic level, DOD's processes for identifying warfighter needs, allocating resources, and developing and procuring weapon systems-which together define DOD's overall weapon system investment strategy-are fragmented and broken. At the program level, weapon system programs are initiated without sufficient knowledge about system requirements, technology, and design maturity."
So when the good folks at Boeing held a briefing today on the Apache helicopter Block 3 upgrade, I was prepared to hear excuses, rationales and papering-overing. What I got was simple and a delight to hear. This program is on budget and on schedule. It is meeting its Key Performance Parameters with room to spare, according to Boeing's VP for Apache programs, Al Winn. "So far, it's a very successful program," Winn said.
The Block 3 improvements are pretty fundamental, requiring a new airframe, more than 1 million lines of code, a new transmission system, longer range and automatic recognition radar, UAV connectivity, the ability to communicate with a much wider range of platforms (but not stealthy aircraft), software that will help the air crew make rapid decisions and a host maintenance management systems that are expected to reduce the average flight hours lost to fixing and maintaining things by 30 percent.
Basically, they are rebuilding the existing 634 strong Apache fleet. So I asked Winn what had kept them on track, what management tips could he offer the beleaguered acquisition corps. After jokingly claiming that it was all due to (his) brilliant leadership, he gave the usual answer about a great team. Then we got down to brass tacks. The program was able to rein in the requirements people.
The program at one point was "bloated" with the usual list of requirements, everything a soldier might ever want in a perfect helicopter. A "program control board" at Boeing, as well as one set up with the Army, kept a vigilant eye on the requirements. And they called in one big gun to help get things made right: Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Richard Cody. The general intervened and the requirements got pared down, Winn said.
Things can still spiral out of control on some front since the program is half-way to its finish date. But Cody gets weekly updates through the chain of command. And he is very close to this program. One week after the first test flight, Cody climbed into the cockpit and flew the first Block 3 chopper. Yes, there was a test pilot in the back seat, but Winn swears the general flew the bird on his own. With someone like that watching their back, we bet Winn has a decent chance of turning in a program on time and on budget. And won't that be, sadly, all too remarkable.