Backlash from the R&D SuperStandard

March 1, 1988

A navigation and targeting sys­tem sorely needed by Air Force ground-attack fighters had rocky going in development. It is in production today, only because the Air Force had enough money and could buy enough time to stay with it through its technological trou­bles. Now, with much less money to go around, taking such pains with highly prized systems having big problems may be a thing of the past.

This point is made by John J. Welch, Jr., Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. His example is LANTIRN, the Low-Al­titude Navigation and Targeting In­frared for Night system. It is de­signed to enable attack aircraft to find and hit ground targets at night and despite low cloud cover, a capa­bility that they have never had and that may make all the difference in combat to come.

“I wonder if LANTIRN could have survived to be successful in today’s environment,” muses Mr. Welch in his measured way. “It was developed during a period of grow­ing budgets. The Air Force could afford to have the patience to let it come together and show that it could be made to do what was ex­pected of it.

“Today, the fact of life is that if we have a high-priority system in diffi­culty—financial, schedule, or per­formance—we are forced to judge it against others that we know we can afford, that are on schedule, and that are performing. It’s hard now to make a judgment to save a program on the basis of its priority—the need for it—alone.”

Mr. Welch also wonders “whether AMRAAM would have lived” through a time of tight budgets. Right from the start, the Air Force tagged the Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile as a must-have weapon, one that would give fighters launch-and-leave capability for reversing the odds when out­numbered and for keeping safe distance from foes. But it was touch and go for AMRAAM through sev­eral years of turbulent development and testing, and the weapon may very well owe its survival to the beefier defense budgets of the re­cent past.

The leaner budgets now on and in store for the Pentagon simply mean, says Mr. Welch, that the Air Force “will have to buy less and accept the risk” in matching its force structure, weapons, and technologies with its strategy and missions for meeting present and future threats.

On an Even Keel

All is not lost, though. On the plus side, he says, are signs that the ex­ecutive and legislative branches of government may be coming to terms on the need to put defense spending on an even keel, which would be salutary in itself.

“The ingredients that are missing from what is otherwise a well-under­stood and well-structured acquisi­tion process are financial stability and program stability,” Mr. Welch declares. If defense spending is raised modestly but consistently each year, the Air Force, he says, “will have the opportunity to make sure that we really are procuring those things that are going to satisfy our needs to meet the threats in the time periods when the user com­mands will have those needs.”

Mr. Welch, who is fifty-seven, became USAF’s top boss of acquisi­tion last November, succeeding Thomas E. Cooper and reporting to Secretary of the Air Force Edward C. Aldridge, Jr. His civilian post had gained ascendancy over the uni­formed side of the Air Force ac­quisition hierarchy as a result of last year’s reorganization of the com­mand structure.

There is no longer a general-of­ficer Deputy Chief of Staff for Research, Development, and Acquisi­tion directly accountable to the Chief of Staff. That slot was shifted to civilian control and was renamed Principal Deputy for Acquisition. It is now manned by Lt. Gen. George L. Monahan.

The big budget crunch of late last year caught Mr. Welch coming in the door, but did not detract from his outlook. “For anyone with my back­ground and experience, this has to be a great job,” he says. “We have a good acquisition system, a new ap­proach to acquisition as a matter of policy and law, lots of good things we’re procuring to meet the Air Force’s well-established needs, and good people who want to get it done.”

His career has been in aerospace all the way. He was Senior Vice President of LTV Aerospace when he accepted the Air Force post. He left the corporation that he had joined, fresh out of the Massachu­setts Institute of Technology, as a junior engineer in 1951, back when the firm was called Chance Vought. Through the years, he worked on a wide range of weapons programs, from aircraft to antisubmarine war­fare. Missiles and space systems were his specialties at the point of his promotion in 1975 to corporate business-development leadership.

Mr. Welch’s background goes well beyond the corporate world, however. He served as Chief Scientist of the Air Force in 1969-70 and has been a consultant to the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, Air Force Systems Command, the Defense Science Board, the Army Science Board, and, on naval af­fairs, the National Academy of Sci­ences.

He has also been a member of the Defense Systems Management Col­lege Board of Visitors, the MIT Ed­ucational Council, and the Center for Strategic and International Stud­ies, having specialized there on is­sues of technology transfer and emerging military technologies.

Discouraging Innovation

Making sure that those technolo­gies keep on coming from a healthy, competitive defense industry is one of Mr. Welch’s major goals. He is in harmony with Secretary Aldridge, who has warned that “we’re on the road to destroying our industrial base” because of policies that re­quire contractors to invest too heav­ily in too many development pro­grams and that tend to discourage risky innovations that are “neces­sary to move our technology for­ward.”

Says Mr. Welch: “The military marketplace has many of the fea­tures of the commercial market­place, but it is different, because there are big winners and big losers. The relationships among the contractors, such as their teaming on major programs, are different to­day. Their return on investment is trending heavily in the negative di­rection, so the money that they have available to invest as a result of prof­its is being pressed.”

The Air Force’s Advanced Tac­tical Fighter program has brought the issue of contractor cost-sharing to the forefront of procurement con­cerns. The ATF program has a line­ up of US aerospace all-stars. Lock­heed, Boeing, and General Dynam­ics are teamed against Northrop and McDonnell Douglas in competition to build the fighter. General Electric and Pratt & Whitney are competing to build the ATF engines. Wes­tinghouse and Texas Instruments are teamed on the ATF radar. All are investing heavily in the winners­-take-all program, and many have complained that their expenditures are eating them alive, will neutralize their ATF profits for years ahead if they come out winners, and will haunt them forever—perhaps de­stroy them—if they come out losers.

The Air Force is sympathetic, but also points out that the companies knew what they were getting into from the start.

“At the time that the ATF pro­gram started,” says Mr. Welch, “it had the ingredients, and it has them today, of good competition in a very high-priority, long-term effort. The potential market [750 fighters] for industry was obviously a big one. But the Air Force knew that it would not have enough money to pursue the development program at the rate that it wanted to.

“So the Air Force sat down with the companies and put all those things on the table. It told them that it really wanted to go after the ATF, but would need their help. They said they would help and that they recognized the need for their investment.

“Now, after all is said and done, everyone is asking how it is all run­ning out. If it doesn’t run out well, if we drive people out of business and shrink our industrial base, we will not have the industrial competitive­ness that we will need for the kinds of technology and systems that we’ll have to have in the long run. So we shouldn’t pursue a negative [acqui­sition] strategy.”

The upshot of all this is another look, in an Air Force-industry study ordered up by Mr. Welch, at the ATF acquisition program.

“The ATF program happens to be the one we’re focusing on,” he says, “but the study is broader than the ATF. It is addressing what our ac­quisition strategy should be in order to ensure that we’ll have a robust industrial base in the future. It sig­nals that we understand both sides of the equation—investment and return on investment—in doing busi­ness with industry.

“Industry is, by definition, in free enterprise. It has certain require­ments—and one is that a company has to have a return on investment if it’s going to stay alive or is going to fulfill its obligations to stock­holders.”

Mr. Welch cautions against inter­preting the current reexamination of Air Force acquisition as caving in to contractor complaints: “We’re re­minding them [the companies] that we were up front with what we had and what we wanted, that we have honored our commitments as to the size and the priority of the ATF pro­gram, and that they’re in it.”

Mr. Welch did not address the possibilities for reformation of pro­curement policy and practices that the study may explore. There are indications, though, that it will con­sider development contracts that guarantee contractors certain levels of return on investment if they in turn are willing to take commensu­rate risks and control costs.

Changes Are Afoot

Whatever comes to pass in the study, it is clear that changes in ways of doing business with indus­try are afoot not only in the Air Force but in the Department of De­fense at large.

Dr. Robert B. Costello, who re­cently succeeded Richard Godwin as Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, has said that DoD must improve its relations with industry and must, by the same token, re­vitalize the defense industrial base. Dr. Costello is said to be attracted to incentive-type contracts that make it more worthwhile for contractors to restrain program costs.

Keeping costs under control is imperative in the ATF program. The Air Force’s goal is to come up with an ATF no heavier than 50,000 pounds and costing no more than $35 million each—as measured by the value of the dollar in Fiscal Year 1985 and assuming the production of 750 aircraft at the rate of seventy-two per year, beginning in the mid-1990s.

Those weight and cost ceilings were set by Mr. Welch’s predeces­sor, Dr. Cooper. It is no secret that the fighter community and the fight­er R&D community regarded them as overly ambitious, but agreed to abide by them for the sake of getting the program under way. More and more, however, those ceilings are being called into question as the Air Force and its ATF contractors con­tinue to chip away at the fighter’s performance characteristics in order to contain the aircraft’s cost and retain its planned production quantity.

On this issue, Mr. Welch declares that the Air Force “cannot and will not sacrifice” its requirement that the ATF be built as “a revolutionary air-superiority fighter that can do its job over the aggressor’s territory. That is the user’s requirement, and that’s what’s driving the program.

“But we’re also realists. We know that if an airplane gets too big and heavy, it’s going to cost too much money, and we won’t be able to get sufficient numbers. We’ve got to have force structure as well as per­formance. Quantity of aircraft is an asset that can’t be dismissed. We can trade off quantity and quality, but we must trade them off within the boundaries of force-structure requirements and performance re­quirements. Those requirements are well understood, and we will meet them.”

Will the Air Force have to relent sooner or later and raise its weight­-and-cost ceiling for the ATF? “That’s a little hard to answer,” re­plies Mr. Welch. “It was properly set as the kind of weight and the kind of dollars that would permit us to get the kind of force structure that was thought to be required. It’s very real. Pounds are dollars, and fly­away dollars are the great denomi­nator in determining force struc­ture. The important thing is to achieve the characteristics for air superiority at a cost we can afford.”

On the issue of contractor invest­ment, the National Aerospace Plane program is another striking case in point where USAF is concerned.

General Dynamics, McDonnell Douglas, and Rockwell Interna­tional were chosen last October as the finalists in competition to con­tinue developing technologies for the hypersonic X-30 experimental aircraft that is scheduled to begin flying in the early to mid-1990s. Rockwell’s Rocketdyne Division and Pratt & Whitney are competing in development of the highly advanced engines that will be required for the plane’s hypersonic flight in air and space.

NASP program officials expect that by the time the X-30 takes to the air, the companies involved in the program will have spent up to half as much money on it as the government will have paid them to proceed.

In terms of contractor invest­ment, “the NASP program is the opposite of the ATF program,” Mr. Welch says. “The Air Force has not told the NASP contractors that it’s a number-one operational priority program or that we know when NASP will go operational or how many we plan to build.”

What it comes down to, he says, is that contractors should see for themselves that the NASP program is a good buy for their investment dollars even without any immediate promise of a big market: “If I were in industry and looking at that pro­gram, I would conclude that it must help my technology base and will help me be competitive in the fu­ture, or I wouldn’t invest in it.”

Nevertheless, the Air Force will do all it can to facilitate industry’s investment in NASP technologies. The reason, says Mr. Welch, is that “we know that the Air Force must be out in front in getting an indus­trial base for hypersonic technolo­gies so that we can be confident of being able to operate in the hyper­velocity regime. That regime is cer­tainly more interesting to the Air Force than it is to anyone else. We should be the leader in it, and the NASP program offers us the oppor­tunity in the near term.”

Managing the Risks

The NASP program is an extreme example of the technological riskiness of virtually all Air Force development programs—and on this score, Mr. Welch has words for critics of Air Force R&D and pro­curement management.

“Defense procurement require­ments are different from others,” he says. “We are asking for systems and applying technology to keep reaching out against very challeng­ing threats. So we know up front that we have to take risks. Our job is to manage the risks, not to avoid them. Most times when we are crit­icized, it’s because the critics don’t

recognize that we’re not in a risk-free business. If you want us to be free of risk, you will not have pro­grams that will keep us the most admired and respected defense ca­pability in the free world. People who are quick to jump on us should recognize that they were told of the risks, just as we were, at the outset.

“There is plenty of room for us to improve, and we are improving. But have we managed our risks well

The answer is, ‘Hell, yes, we have.”

Over the past few years, the Pen­tagon has taken increasing heat from Congress over its management of electronic warfare systems ac­quisition, with special emphasis on the alleged jumble of programs for aircraft radar warning receivers (RWRs).

Last August, the General Ac­counting Office reported that the Air Force and the Navy were acquir­ing nine different RWRs for their tactical aircraft at a combined cost of more than $6.6 billion, that “none are common to both Air Force and Navy aircraft,” and that “the ser­vices have not capitalized on sev­eral opportunities to develop com­mon RWRs.”

GAO’s charges prompted the Of­fice of the Secretary of Defense to launch a special program review (SPR) of the RWR situation last Oc­tober that seems, at this writing, to be picking up steam under Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci.

Mr. Welch cautions against “addressing the subject of radar warning receivers without recogniz­ing that thousands of aircraft exist today—some bigger than others, some with newer systems, some with older systems, some required to perform in a high-threat environ­ment, some in a low-threat environ­ment, and some that will be with us for a longer time than others.

“To reject these facts of life in planning RWR procurements to meet all the needs would be to hold the real world hostage to the un­achievable world—and maybe that’s the way we’re being asked to live.”

In the EW context, the question of the adequacy of the defensive avi­onics on the B-IB bomber invari­ably comes up.

Says Mr. Welch: “We did a good job on the individual systems on the bomber, but we ran into difficulties when we wanted them all to work together. Today, the defensive sys­tem in the airplane can go to war—no question in our minds. Over time, we will get to the full capabili­ty that we want. The [defensive avi­onics] contractor was given a job to do, and he didn’t do it. Now he is doing it.”

Congress is putting heavy pres­sure on the Pentagon to devise a master plan for development and procurement of electronic warfare systems that would inevitably lead to a slew of joint-service EW pro­grams under OSD management.

Mr. Welch indicates reservations about this, saying: “Where there are mutual needs across the services, you can end up with joint programs. But jointness is a result, not a goal, and it should not be predefined. To presume that it’s a virtue unto itself is to cause anomalous decisions.”

He leaves no doubt of his philo­sophical and practical opposition to centralizing the execution of the ser­vices’ acquisition programs in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, a move that many in Congress favor and that seemed to be afoot in OSD for a time last year under Richard C. Godwin, then the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition.

The drift toward centralized ac­quisition created a rift between Mr. Godwin and the service Secre­taries, who, with Secretary Al­dridge in the forefront, managed to stem it. Mr. Godwin subsequently resigned, because he lacked the au­thority that he thought was due him in the congressionally mandated re­vamping of the Pentagon’s procure­ment power structure.

Dr. Costello, who served under Mr. Godwin and then succeeded him, is believed to be less sensitive to the issue, but much remains to be seen.

Of centralized acquisition, Mr. Welch asserts: “I’ve seen it tried elsewhere, and it hasn’t worked.”