Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Worst Idea of the Week

Since he was forced out as Air Force Secretary last month, Michael Wynne hasn’t been shy about sharing his opinions. First, he took some predictable shots at the DoD officials who engineered his dismissal. Now, he’s weighing in on the USAF most contentious—and critical—aircraft acquisition program, the next-generation tanker or KC-X.

As readers know, the effort to field a new tanker for the Air Force has been long and torturous. First, there was the ill-fated lease program between the service and Boeing, which erupted into a full-scale scandal, resulting in jail terms for the service’s senior acquisition official and an executive for the defense contractor.

Five years later the Air Force tried again, with a competition that pitted Boeing’s KC-767 against the Northrop-Grumman KC-30. Earlier this year, the Northrop-Grumman entrant, based on the Airbus A330 jetliner, was selected as the winner. But that triggered a protest from Boeing, which was upheld by the Government Accountability Office. That means another round of competition, with a new “winner” being named later this year. Don’t hold your breath.

So how does Mr. Wynne, who presided over the last round in the tanker war, propose to break to acquisition logjam? Split the contract, he said, in a recent interview with Air Force magazine. Under that plan, Boeing and Northrop-Grumman would each build about 15 tankers a year.

I think a split buy right now is something that we have to examine,” Wynne, who stepped down as USAF’s top civilian on June 20, said during a sit-down interview. “This is an opportunity to resolve a very tense political issue and still maintain competition.”

According to Mr. Wynne, a split contract would make everyone happy, providing jobs and revenue to both defense contractors, while preventing future protests that would put the program further behind schedule.

For the record, Mike Wynne isn’t the first person to suggest splitting the tanker program. But unfortunately, this supposedly “Solomon-esque” solution is one of the worst acquisition ideas that anyone has offered. It might satisfy the contractors—and their friends in Congress—but it would create nightmares for the Air Force.

Look at it this way: two different tankers means two different training programs for aircrews and maintenance personnel. Then, there’s the need for separate logistics and repair functions. This “doubling” of the support network will result in a tanker program that is far more complex (and expensive) than necessary.

That’s why the military has an acquisition process that, supposedly, gives the contract to the vendor offering the best product, at the most affordable price. And there’s no reason to end that practice, which has worked reasonably well for decades.

What the Air Force really needs isn’t a split tanker program, but a reformed acquisition system. The GAO upheld Boeing’s protest because the service made significant errors in awarding the contract to Northrop-Grumman. If the service had done the job right the first time, we’d have new airframes for our refueling wings, instead of a program trapped in organizational limbo.

Besides, if we follow the “split contract” of Mr. Wynne (and others), it will only encourage defense firms and Congress to challenge every major weapons program that comes down the pike. That would inevitably lead to more divided programs, more training and support headaches for the military services and a far greater bill for the taxpayer.

So far, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has resisted calls for dividing the tanker contract. We can only hope that he maintains that strategy, despite the next round of lobbying from Congress and the defense contractors. The “solution” offered by Mr. Wynne isn’t a solution at all, but merely an invitation for continued chaos in defense acquisitions.


Anonymous said...
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James Skylar Gerrond said...

Looks like you might be on the right track...