WASHINGTON — Faced with rapid advances by potential enemies like Russia and China, the US Air Force is launching an effort to speed up delivery of weapons to troops.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James outlined the initiative, dubbed “should schedule,” during the Air Force Association’s annual air and space exposition earlier this month. The pilot program will offer incentives to weapon makers to beat milestones and deliver programs ahead of schedule. The service will start small, with low-dollar programs, and ramp up after proving the approach works.
“Unfortunately, today it takes too long to develop and field our systems,” James said. “If we can collectively beat the historical developmental schedules and reward the behavior in government and industry that speeds things up, we have a real chance to make a difference.”
But long before the Air Force officially rolled out “should schedule,” leadership was already experimenting with ways to streamline the clunky acquisition process.
The Air Force recently revealed that the effort to procure a next-generation Long Range Strike Bomber is unusually mature for a program at such an early stage of development. Although the Air Force has not yet awarded a contract to one of two competitors — Northrop Grumman and a Boeing-Lockheed Martin team — the service already has two robust designs in hand and has completed much of the necessary risk reduction.
“What we’ve focused on with LRS-B is trying to make sure the technology is more mature than we’ve ever started a program [with],” Lt. Gen. Arnie Bunch, the Air Force’s deputy assistant secretary for acquisition, said during an event hosted by AFA. “Based on where we are at and what industry partners have done, we are confident this is going to be more mature, technology-wise, than any new development program we’ve ever started.”
The Air Force has revealed very little about the mysterious effort to replace its aging B-1 and B-52 bombers. What is known is that the Air Force plans to buy 80-100 bombers at a startlingly low unit cost of $550 million in fiscal 2010 dollars. The service expects to announce the winner of the contract in the next few weeks.
As new details about LRS-B emerge, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Air Force is using the program as a sort of test bed for best practices in acquisition.
“Is [LRS-B] a model for the new initiatives that we are trying to go forward with? I think there are lessons learned that we’re going to get out of this that we’re going to port over into other things,” Bunch said.
Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, head of Air Force Materiel Command, also indicated in an interview with Defense News that the Air Force is using lessons learned from the LRS-B effort to drive efficiency into other programs.
The Air Force is starting to put a much stronger focus on development planning, Pawlikowski said. As part of this effort, the service is increasingly working with industry to better define requirements around what is needed, what technology is available and how fast goals can be reached.
“I love to steal good ideas and make them work,” Pawlikowski said, adding that the effort to incorporate more modeling and simulation upfront “is directly applying some of the lessons we learned in terms of formulating LRS-B.”
The Air Force is also beginning to re-evaluate its goals regularly throughout the acquisition cycle, she emphasized.
“You get to the point where some of the technology now becomes not just models and simulations, but experimentation,” Pawlikowski said. For example, “maybe once a year we cycle back and look at our planning, and you say, ‘this really works and the technology is pretty mature, and we could probably put this on the F-35 in 2025 — we do not need to wait until 2030.’”
This is similar to what the Air Force has been doing with LRS-B, she said.
In the same vein, the Air Force last year stood up an Office of Transformational Innovation, headed by Camron Gorguinpour, whose mandate is to think about acquisition outside the box. Gorguinpour’s office attempts to engage industry early in the process, in effect enabling industry to help shape a program’s requirements.
Gorguinpour has four pilot projects: the T-X trainer replacement; the Long Range Standoff Weapon; a follow-on to the Space-Based Infrared System; and the Multi-Domain Adaptable Processing System, which connects fourth- and fifth-generation fighter jets.
“The idea of the office is to try to [do] ‘swing for the fences’-type of acquisition changes, things that go beyond sort of the traditional things we think about with acquisition reform,” Gorguinpour told reporters during a presentation at the recent AFA symposium, calling the office “Skunk Works for bureaucrats.”
T-X is a perfect example of how the Air Force is tweaking its approach to acquisition. The Air Force released the requirements for T-X 10 months earlier than is normal, and has held multiple meetings with the companies proposing designs. Another new initiative in the T-X program: Whenever an industry team asks for clarification on a certain point, the Air Force releases the answer publicly.
“From the beginning, we’ve been very open and transparent on this T-X program with industry to let them know why we need this new generation trainer, what the requirements are and to talk to them specifically about what we are trying to achieve,” Lt. Gen. Darryl Roberson, commander of Air Education and Training Command, said during a presentation at AFA.
In order to further tighten timelines, the Air Force is also focused on owning the technical baseline for major programs and requiring that new projects incorporate open mission systems, Bunch said.
But most important to the Air Force’s efforts to reduce costs and speed up delivery time is transparency and dialogue with industry, Bunch emphasized.
“We are trying to get feedback from industry on what we are trying to do to see if what we are doing is made out of unobtanium, or if there are things that we really are trying to achieve that we just aren’t approaching the right way,” Bunch said.