Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Following a Familiar Pattern

There's little doubt that the Air Force acquisition corps is in serious trouble. Protracted efforts to find a replacement for the KC-135 tanker recently suffered another setback, when Defense Secretary Robert Gates deferred a final decision to his successor.

Some would say that Mr. Gates had little choice. Last spring, the USAF awarded a contract for new refueling jets to Northrop-Grumman, but that deal was ultimately tossed out, after the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found serious problems with how the service handled the bidding process.

It was the second time the USAF bungled the tanker acquisition effort. A proposed lease of Boeing aircraft was scuttled five years ago, after government investigators uncovered misconduct by an Air Force official and a senior Boeing executive.

In the aftermath of the latest debacle, Mr. Gates stripped the USAF of its authority over the program. His action represented a damning indictment of the service's acquisition efforts, a vote of "no confidence" in the Air Force's ability to manage its procurement affairs. With the process dragging on (and the Bush Administration winding down), Gates decided to let his replacement sort out the mess and award the next tanker contract.

Meanwhile, the USAF's other big acquisition project, the next-generation Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR-X) helicopter seems to be following a similar pattern. Readers will recall that the GAO shot down (no pun intended) the original contract awarded to Boeing, after protests from competing firms. But, the Air Force still hoped to rebid the project--and announce a new winner--by year's end, minimizing delays in the delivery of the new choppers.

Now, those hopes appear to be fading. Contractors familiar with the process say that Air Force briefings on the project (scheduled for this month) have been postponed, while the service focuses on reforming its overall acquisition program.

As a part of that process, the service is consulting with outside experts on potential life cycle costs for CSAR-X. That was a major sticking point in the original competition, won by Boeing. Competitors claimed that the Air Force ignored certain life cycle expenses in making its original decision.

According to Aviation Week, no one really knows how the additional reviews will affect the contracting process. Officially, the Air Force is sticking by its original timetable, but that schedule seems (increasingly) in doubt. Given the same political factors that influenced the tanker decision, it seems likely that the USAF will postpone a decision on CSAR-X until after the next administration takes office.

In turn, that means more delays for a badly-needed weapons system. See a pattern here? As we wrote several months ago, reform of the acquisition process was one of the top priorities for the new Air Force leadership team. They are clearly working on the problem, but it may take an accelerated effort. Continued delays in major acquisition programs are unacceptable.

And, in fairness, the USAF needs a little help. Political pressures have crippled major defense programs, perpetuating a protracted cycle of protests and rebids. We need an acquisition equivalent of a BRAC commission, to reduce political influences in key military procurement programs.

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