The U.S. Air Force has become a leader in defense acquisition by pursuing clever ways to shorten the acquisition process, bypassing traditional, onerous steps to field new aircraft, missiles and drones. Today, speed is the mantra in the defense acquisition community, and the Air Force constantly seeks new ways to shorten the development cycle. However, speed in the pursuit of rapid fielding should never happen at the expense of competition.
The Air Force plans to procure a large number of new Boeing F-15EX fighters to replace aging F-15Cs. This program is on a fast track so that the replacement F-15EXs are fielded before the F-15Cs are grounded at the end of their structural life.
In its haste, the Air Force is buying the engines, two per F-15EX, on a sole-source contract from General Electric rather than on a competitive basis, despite the availability of Pratt & Whitney engines already flying on nearly all its F-15Es. The GE engines will be provided to Boeing from the Air Force as government-furnished equipment.
This is a curious decision because the Air Force has strongly advocated competitive buys for engines whenever possible. The F-15EX program contemplates the procurement of several hundred aircraft and upward of 500-700 engines, clearly a sufficient quantity to reap the benefits of competition.
The Air Force learned the enduring value of competition for fighter engines in the “Great Engine War” of the early 1980s. The Air Force was able to buy engines for F-15s and F-16s competitively each year from both GE and Pratt. The Air Force varied the ratio of engines from each annually based on contractor performance and price under competition.
In the process, the Air Force learned many lessons about engine procurement and acquisition strategies that has served it well since. The Great Engine War produced higher quality engines from both GE and Pratt at lower cost with better reliability and powerful warranties to guarantee performance and support costs for the life of the engines.
The most important lesson learned was the value of competition throughout the development and procurement cycles. Competition inspired innovation and brought out the best of both GE and Pratt designers and engineers. It forced the business side of each company to sharpen its pencils for negotiating in the competitive arena. Moreover, as a direct result of the Great Engine War, laws were passed to strengthen the requirement for competition in contracting for defense products, most notably for engines and engine parts. The Air Force was the leader in seeing these laws enacted by Congress.
Therefore, it is out of character for the Air Force to pursue a sole-source contract for this program when more than one contractor is qualified to provide the engines. It flies in the face of Air Force acquisition doctrine — and the law.
The F-15EX is a new model of the Air Force F-15E. The Air Force has procured more than 225 F-15Es over the years powered by Pratt engines. The F-15EX is an ideal program for a full and open engine competition.
The Air Force should be commended for its aggressive pursuit of alternative acquisition strategies to shorten the cycle time from concept to production. But while it invents techniques to go fast, it must not discard competition as the first principle and bedrock of smart acquisition. Competition for engines should not delay the overall F-15EX program. On the contrary, it will yield significant, positive benefits for the life of the program.
Gen. John Michael Loh is a former U.S. Air Force vice chief of staff and had served as the commander of Air Combat Command.