Fine-tuning the acquisition process at the Pentagon

A bright spot on the weapons shopping list is UAVs, which have performed admirably in the Afghanistan operations.

Feb 1st, 2002
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John Rhea

A bright spot on the weapons shopping list is UAVs, which have performed admirably in the Afghanistan operations.

WASHINGTON — After a year in office, the Bush Administration team at the Pentagon has begun fine-tuning the acquisition process for the major weapon systems. There should be heartening news here for the electronics industry, because that process seems to be focused on advanced technologies.

For example, the Air Force's F-22 fighter and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), for which the acquisition process has begun, are envisioned as working synergistically to give U.S. forces an all-stealth capability that will enable them to dominate the skies.

Also, in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, momentum is building to place greater reliance on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).

Troublesome questions remain concerning such other big-ticket items as the V-22 tiltrotor aircraft for the Marine Corps and the always-controversial issue of national missile defense, or NMD.

In the case of the F-22, members of the Pentagon team ordered low rate initial production or LRIP, last year and say they expect to begin taking delivery of the aircraft around 2005.

Both the F-22 and the JSF had to clear some financial hurdles established by the Pentagon's in-house watchdogs, the Cost-Analysis Improvement Group (CAIG), and that oversight process is expected to continue.

One of the programs that did not make the CAIG cut was the Navy's DD-21 shipbuilding program to design a new heavily armed destroyer, which was terminated and folded into a research and development effort called DD-X. Even in this case, however, the Pentagon analysts stressed improved technology. The redirected program will address such issues as new hull designs, electric propulsion, new gun systems, new radar, and stealth technology.

The overseers also canceled the Navy's own missile-defense program, which emphasized protecting ships, and folded it into the services-wide program run by the Missile Defense Agency (formerly the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization).

Although the NMD test results to date have been less than encouraging, the Pentagon team is looking at something more ambitious than merely attacking missiles during the mid-course phase. This is where the missile warheads — and the accompanying decoys — are actually in space and have to be detected and sorted out with a variety of radar and infrared sensors.

The broader-based program that the planners now envision encompasses defenses against short-, medium- and long-range missiles with the capability to intercept them in launch, mid-course, or terminal phases, said Edward (Pete) Aldridge, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, at a recent Pentagon news briefing.

This is essentially the kind of capability that President Reagan had sought under his Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed the "Star Wars" program. The price tag, estimated in some quarters at as much as a trillion dollars, scuttled that effort. Now members of the Bush Administration have resurrected the program to include a variety of systems.

One of those is the Patriot anti-aircraft system that was pressed into service during the Persian Gulf conflict to defend against Iraq's Scud missiles. Although the Scuds, originally bought from the Russian and based on 1950s technology, were somewhat successful against the Patriots, it should be remembered that Patriot was designed to shoot down aircraft, and was never intended for use against missiles.

Now Defense Department scientists are working on what is known as the PAC III Patriot Advanced Capability system for use against missiles and aircraft together with the Air Force's Airborne Laser.

Another high-technology item, the Space Based Infrared Radar System (SBIRS), will be critical in supporting the NMD, and this has been a cause of some concern. Aldridge concedes that managers must correct some slips in this program before missile-defense experts believe that satellite-based sensors can reliably discern real warheads from decoys.

Aldridge calls slips like this "a fact of life," adding that highly complex weapons programs of the past often have suffered from over-optimism. There's a name for that: "success schedule," and it assumes that everything will go right during the development phase, through LRIP, and finally to full-scale production and deployment.

This has obviously been a case of self-delusion for those involved in success schedule projects. Aldridge proposes to adopt development processes pioneered in industry, such as spiral development. "Don't go for 100 percent solution ... right out of the gate ... 80 percent is good enough and we'll evolve it with time," he told the briefing.

The idea is to phase out and replace old technologies quickly. Aldridge maintains that this reduces the whole spectrum of risks, technical, cost, and schedule.

However, he also stresses that programs need full funding up front. "Every dollar we take out of a program early we put back three to five dollars later," he says. It's sort of like the old television commercials for automobile oil filters in which the mechanic tells motorists they can pay him now (for the filters) or pay him later (for a major repair job on the car).

The V-22 has had plenty of bad press in recent months, and Aldridge concedes there remain doubts about the aircraft's safety, reliability, and operational suitability. In-house review groups have been at work on this program, too, and they have given it tentative approval to begin a new flight test program — more comprehensive than the previous one — in April.

A bright spot on the weapons shopping list is UAVs, which have performed admirably in the Afghanistan operations and are now being penciled in for increased funding in the new defense budget. Of particular interest is the plan to add a signals-intelligence capability to the Global Hawk. There is also political pressure to ease export restrictions to enable American allies to buy top-of-the-line UAVs.

The new acquisition processes, while nowhere nearly as all-encompassing as those initiated by former Defense Secretary William Perry, nonetheless are moving to narrow down the choices. The first indications of whether the planners have succeeded should come with the release of the fiscal year 2003 defense budget and the accompanying five-year projection, which is now scheduled for this month.

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