WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force has stripped 100 years out of the schedules of its acquisition programs, the service’s top civilian announced Thursday.
“The Air Force has taken advantage of the authorities that Congress has given us to try to do things faster and smarter,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said during an event on Capitol Hill. “[Having] unnecessary schedule[s] delays getting capability to the war fighter, and speed matters in an era of reemerged great power competition.”
A number of Air Force programs shrunk their schedules to challenge acquisition personnel to get weapons to airmen quicker. For instance, the B-52 engine replacement program cut more than three years from its planned development cycle. The “F-22 Capability Pipeline,” a suite of upgrades for that jet, cut out two years from that program.
Now comes the hard part. Those savings are an estimate based on current schedules, so it will be up to the service to ensure programs stay on track.
Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper has no illusions that the service will be able to achieve all 100 years of savings that are on the books but that some programs will slip. And that’s OK, he told Defense News earlier this week.
“Part of changing the culture of acquisition is telling people that real world learning is expected. We build things that do not exist, that have never existed. If there’s no learning, we’re not taking enough risk to build a cutting-edge Air Force,” he said.
“Issues will happen, we train our people to be able to troubleshoot them. But troubleshoot[ing] those issues is going to mean slippages. What I’m going to be looking for is the amount that we expect to save versus the amount that we actually save,” he added. “As long as it’s a pretty healthy actual savings compared to intended, then this is worth doing.”
For the most part, Air Force acquisition officials were able to shave time off programs in two different ways, Roper said.
Leaders on new programs could submit an acquisition strategy than conforms to the Section 804 authorities approved by Congress in the fiscal 2016 defense bill, as well as the traditional acquisition instructions known as DoD 5000.
Most of the time, Section 804 is the better fit for weapon system development, allowing personnel to get on contract faster and begin prototyping, Roper said. The Air Force shed five years off each of its major hypersonic weapons programs — the hypersonic conventional strike weapon and the AGM-183A Advanced Rapid Response Weapon — simply by using Section 804 authorities to build the schedule.
The fast timeline required of Section 804 efforts can also help prevent the Air Force from creating a program that is “too big to fail.”
“If you can’t do it in five years, that’s probably a generation beyond what can be done in the war fighter today,” Roper said. “I like the fact that you’ve got the ability to commit to a prototype and make it crystal clear to industry … that there is another decision, which is the big decision. And that’s the decision to field. What kills acquisition is when a flawed concept makes it into production.”
For older programs, officials revisited the existing schedule and removed extraneous tasks that only serve to create more bureaucracy and may not apply to that platform.
Some complicated, integrated weapon systems, like the B-21 bomber or Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, require a more traditional acquisition process, but most programs don’t involve the same high levels of risk, Roper said.
“People are re-looking at acquisition strategies and saying is it really necessary to complete all of these steps, check all of these boxes that are meant to apply to any program that the department could ever do, but that never apply to every program?” he said. “There is an overkill in terms of making sure you can guide a program.”
In other cases, acquisition officials were able to compress development times by incorporating commercial best practices. For example, the Air Force hit its 100-year goal when a classified space program removed six months from its schedule by using agile software development methods to deliver new capabilities more quickly.
It won’t be easy for the Air Force to keep its programs on track, and one of its biggest success stories — the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared missile defense satellite constellation — is already in danger of falling behind.
Roper has warned that unless Congress transfers an additional $632 million to the program in fiscal 2019, it would be forced to delay the launch of the first three missile warning satellites by two years.
Further, the House Appropriations Committee wants to cut funding for Next Gen OPIR in FY20, removing about $202 million from the program.
“We’ll continue to work with Congress to ensure that we can meet this requirements of the war fighter. In this case this means reprogramming and continuing on with the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared development,” Wilson said.
But if Congress doesn’t offer up the requested funding, “then it gets delayed and we take risk,” she added. “I don’t think this is a good place to take risk.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.