A tale of two military systems

The legacy test systems that the CASS units are replacing required 105 operational personnel.

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John Rhea

The legacy test systems that the CASS units are replacing required 105 operational personnel. The new systems require 54.

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Department of Defense is trying to kill one high-visibility weapon system that would eat up $11 billion in defense dollars to do a job that has essentially vanished since the end of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, a very low-visibility item in the defense budget has achieved a mean time between failure (MTBF) rate more than five times its original design goal and is projected to reduce total ownership costs by nearly $4 billion over its 20-year life.

The high-visibility system, which dominated newspaper front pages last month, is the U.S. Army's Crusader 155-millimeter self-propelled howitzer. The system that has probably never been on anybody's front page is the U.S. Navy's Consolidated Automated Support System (CASS) managed by the Naval Air Systems Command across the Potomac from the Pentagon at the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who once supported Crusader, is applying his budget hatchet to the program for what I believe is the right reason. The money can be better spent on future technologies, such as precision-guided bombs, he said.

"This decision is not about any one weapon system, but merely about a strategy of warfare, a strategy that drives the choices that we must make about how best to prepare our total forces for the future," Rumsfeld said in announcing his decision.

This is the first military program to be terminated by the Bush administration, but it may not be the last. Pentagon bean counters have begun applying special scrutiny to the Army's Comanche helicopter and the Marine Corps' V-22 Osprey aircraft.

A program as big as Crusader has a built-in constituency, and its proponents are desperately trying to keep the original $475 million request for the program alive as the $383 billion fiscal 2003 defense budget wends its way through the congressional approval process.

That request would continue engineering development in anticipation of an initial operational capability in 2008. Nonetheless, that still leaves the question of what Crusader would do after 2008. The original purpose was to halt Soviet forces advancing through the Fulda Gap in the north German plain.

Nobody seems too worried about that possibility today, so the Army supporters of Crusader are redirecting their pitch to closing any artillery gap with such formidable armies as those of China and North Korea. That pitch sounds vaguely reminiscent of the weapons that some said were necessary to counter Saddam Hussein's "fourth largest army in the world" a decade ago.

While I find it heartening that realistic thinking is permeating the top levels of the Pentagon, I find it even more heartening that the people at the operational level at Pax River are quietly applying common sense to improve avionics testing at sea — and saving substantial taxpayer dollars in the process.

The CASS program is intended to capitalize on commercial off-the-shelf and non-developmental item (COTS/NDI) technology to give the Navy a single family of avionics testers that can do the job that 25 separate test systems used to do. The logistics advantages of using a common system are obvious.

Not so obvious are the sources of the cost savings. The legacy test systems that the CASS units are replacing required 105 operational personnel. The new systems require 54. Avionics validation is by definition a labor-intensive process.

Space is at a premium on board ship, and CASS has a smaller footprint that needs 1,900 square feet vs. 2,700 square feet for the legacy systems. The difference is even more dramatic in the case of the supporting spares: 3,800 square feet for CASS and 30,000 square feet for the legacy systems.

Also, given the high training costs for the avionics maintenance personnel, having a single family of test systems has to be another big plus. Adding up all these factors, Marie Greening, the program manager at NavAir, projects a reduction in total ownership costs over the 20-year life of the program at $3.92 billion. That would buy plenty of Crusader artillery pieces if U.S. forces ever do have to defend the Fulda Gap.

The idea of employing an open-system architecture to standardize avionics test systems originated in some in-house Pentagon studies in 1976, she recalls, and the development program began 20 years ago, with CASS going into production at Lockheed Martin Information Systems, Orlando, Fla., in 1990.

The original design goal of 200 hours MTBF has steadily been extended. Using the aircraft carrier installations of CASS as an indicator dramatically illustrates this growth. The system on the Carl Vinson (CVN 70), installed November 1998 and May 1999, achieved a MTBF of 421 hours. For the Enterprise (CVN 65), for which the installation was from May to October of 2001, the figure was 1,075 hours.

Moreover, like the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for which CASS is being considered, this system has a sufficiently flexible open system architecture to get a number of users into the same tent — even civilian agencies such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

It is axiomatic that aircraft performance is steadily improving these days and that the electronics content is increasing in parallel. One of the ground rules in the testing industry is that the testers have to be more sophisticated than the electronics equipment they are testing.

Therefore it logically follows that the test function cannot be an afterthought in the overall program life cycle of a weapon system. The COTS/NDI tools are readily available; all that's needed is the decision early in the life cycle to employ them in the critical support functions.

On the assumption that Secretary Rumsfeld can sustain his preference for promising new technologies, testing is an area where these technologies can make a major contribution and should merit his attention.

The savings on individual systems are modest, but the cumulative effect is substantial. As Philip Dormer Stanhope, the Earl of Chesterfield (not Andrew Carnegie) first said in the 18th century, "Take care of the pence, for the pounds will take care of themselves."

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