Will the law cooperate with the Air Force’s bold new approach to acquiring sophisticated fighter jets?

The front page of yesterday’s Washington Times carries a story by Ben Wolfgang entitled (online) “Air Force looks for high tech fixes to ‘geriatric’ fleet of fighters in race vs. China.”  Mr. Wolfgang’s excellent article reports on the ambitious Air Force plan “to develop, test and field a sophisticated 21st-century fighter jet within five years,” and he quotes a number of people including myself.  Although Ben uses a lot of what I gave him, I thought I would share with you my full input (and add a few comments).

A little context: Mr. Wolfgang explains that the Air Force “is embarking on one of its most sweeping overhauls in decades, moving away from reliance on expensive programs that produce jets expected to last 50 years or longer and toward a fleet with a variety of aircraft, each with a specialized mission and a much shorter runway life.”  Designated the “Digital Century Series” the plan “calls for a revolutionary partnership between the Pentagon and private industry” and “demands that military contractors draw up plans, conduct all necessary research and development, and deliver combat-ready planes to the Air Force within five years.”

My full input to Mr. Wolfgang about the proposal was as follows:

“A fresh approach to the fielding of advanced aircraft is an imperative in an era of rapid technological change, and this seems to be an exciting development.  That said, fielding a fighter in five years or less is a very aggressive timetable, even when sophisticated manufacturing techniques and open architecture hardware are leveraged. 

The devil, of course, is in the details.  I think it’s one thing to build a more or less generic platform, and then quickly optimize it by installing the best available avionics, surveillance capabilities, and weaponry for a particular mission, but it’s quite another to build a unique airframe for each requirement, if that’s what the initiative is suggesting. 

Even if you can rapidly build different airframes, there’s still the issue of supporting them.  A proliferation of platforms could multiply the challenge of keeping sufficient spare parts for each on hand, and ensuring you have maintainers with the right technical expertise available.   

Obviously, to make this work, low-maintenance would have to be designed into the platform, and advanced technologies like 3-D printing would have to be shown to be reliable sources of replacement parts when and where they would be needed. 

Planners also need to survey the existing acquisition system to make sure it could keep up with the swift award of contracts, something that would seem to be an essential element of the program.  If changes in the law are needed, getting Congress on board as soon as possible is vital.

Still, if the Air Force is to maintain an asymmetric advantage over potential adversaries, this is sort of out-of-the-box thinking is what we’ll have to have.” 

Mr. Thomas B. Bounds

I don’t know the acquisition strategy the Air Force intends to utilize to execute this plan, but the Department of Defense’s scheme to acquire and maintain advanced systems can be difficult and time-consuming to navigate. There have been a lot of efforts at reform, and the best description of those efforts I’ve seen is a brilliant, May 2019 study (found here) by Mr. Thomas Bounds (now with Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison LLP).

Mr. Bounds included this chart that well-illustrates the complexity of the current “Acquisition, Technology, & Logistics Life Cycle Management Framework”:

Mind-boggling, isn’t it?  Much of the complexity is dictated by law, and Mr. Bounds’ study makes a number of recommendations for reform. I found one of them especially interesting as it addresses something I think too-easily delays an acquisition: bid protests.  A bid protest, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) tells us, “is a challenge to the award or proposed award of a contract for the procurement of goods and services or a challenge to the terms of a solicitation for such a contract.”  Mr. Bounds explains:

“Bid protests are an ever-present element of most major Acquisition decisions, especially when the government down selects at the Analysis of Alternatives phase.  In the time period from FY 2008 to FY 2016, contractors made over 11,000 bid protests, delaying program development and costing the government the time and expense needed to adjudicate.  Section 809 proposals would limit the filing of bid protests to the Department itself, rather than the Government Accountability Office or Court of Federal Claims. Finally, the Department would be more empowered to rely upon market research in adjudicating claims, rather than making internal judgments without a guiding framework.”

My bet is that there will be a lot of hand-wringing about cutting out the GAO and Court of Federal Claims, but it’s hard to see how the U.S. can keep up with potential adversaries absent some pretty dramatic changes in the way it procures high-tech weaponry.  Indeed, earlier this year two experts pointed out that in the high-tech arena especially, “rapid procurement is a national security imperative.”  I agree with their contention that:

“The cumbersome and lengthy acquisition process stifles innovation and allows our adversaries, such as China, to develop and deploy cutting edge technologies far faster than we are able. The loser is our military, who often [is] saddle[d] with obsolete capabilities”.

But speed can’t come without the kind of knowledge and information decision-makers need to have at key points.  Last May the GAO released a report which, while not discussing this new proposal, complained that “DOD programs continue not to fully implement knowledge-based acquisition practices.”

The GAO observed that “most of the 45 current programs proceeded into system development, through critical design reviews, and into production without completing the key knowledge-based practices associated with each of these three points.”  The chart below illustrates those points which are part of what the GAO calls “knowledge-based acquisition practices”:The GAO counseled:

“Over the past two years, GAO found that the major DOD acquisition programs that completed one or more of three specific practices had significantly lower cost and schedule growth than those that did not. These three practices were (1) demonstration that all critical technologies were very close to final form, fit, and function, within a relevant environment, before starting development; (2) completion of a preliminary design review prior to starting development; and (3) release of at least 90 percent of design drawings by critical design review.”

With Lt Gen Deptula at St. Andrews, May 2018

Clearly, acquisition actions based on the Air Force proposals ought to keep the GAO findings in mind.  The stakes are high: retired Air Force Lt. Gen Dave Deptula has pointed out that “over 80 percent of the service’s fighter aircraft are based upon designs from the late 1960s and early 1970s” – a fact that I’d bet most Americans don’t realize.  The Washington Times quoted Lt Gen Deptula:

“The Air Force has a geriatric force structure,” said retired Air Force Gen. David Deptula, now dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Power Studies. “It is lagging [behind] the fast pace of the development of technology. It is falling behind the necessary recapitalization rate of old aircraft. And it is still reliant on a Cold War acquisition paradigm.”  Mr. Deptula said the Digital Century Series approach is “spot on” and shows the Air Force recognizes its need for deep, lasting changes. (Emphasis added.)

I think he’s right, so we (Congress in specific!) need to make sure that the U.S.’s acquisition law is ready to “cooperate” with this bold new plan to keep America’s Air Force the finest in the world.

Still, as we like to say on Lawfire®, checks the facts and the law, assess the arguments, and decide for yourself!


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