The Air Force faces a Herculean labor: replacing more than $400 billion worth of obsolete equipment before it either completely breaks down or a world adversary takes advantage of the situation.
“We’re living off the capital investments, in many of these fundamental areas,” that were made during the 1980s, said Air Force acquisition chief William A. LaPlante. In an interview with Air Force Magazine, he noted, “It was never planned” that any of the systems now overdue for replacement would remain in service as long as they have, and now the day of reckoning has simply arrived.
The shopping list is extremely long—entire fleets of fighters, bombers, ICBMs, tankers, trainers, surveillance airplanes, rescue helicopters, and more—and the window for replacement is uncomfortably small. In fact, of the Air Force’s top five acquisition priorities, three—the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), a replacement airborne ground surveillance radar jet, and the T-X trainer—are all supposed to yield their first deployable asset in 2023. That year, too, is when a host of technology demonstrators and concept experiments involving lasers, microwave weapons, hypersonic missiles, and more are supposed to bear fruit in the form of a near-producible capability.
End of the Waiting Game
What’s special about 2023? Is that deadline driven by the threat or some kind of acquisition cycle
“I think you’d have to look case by case,” LaPlante said, but what those programs have largely in common is that most replace a Cold War system. Since the early 1990s, the question has been asked “multiple times” and is going to be asked again: “Well, can we wait even longer?”
The answer is, “No.”
“We have pressed the age limits on these capital investments as long as we possibly can,” he asserted. “Many of those systems have been delayed already, multiple times,” and “it’s remarkable that we’ve kept some of these systems around as long as we have.” He ticked off the now-clichéd anecdotes of B-52 pilots flying the jets their grandfathers flew, that most of the Air Force’s fighters now qualify for antique license plates, and that the launch control centers for Minuteman ICBMs date back to the Kennedy Administration. The other services are in a similar bind, he added.
So, how to pay for all that, and seemingly, all at once
“This is worked every day by the programmers in the Air Force [and] by the leadership of the Air Force, by looking deep in detail at the next 10 years,” LaPlante explained. The old method of doing a five-year plan has been abandoned; now the service has a high-fidelity 10-year plan and “lower-fidelity” 20- and 30-year plans that sequence the order that new systems will have to be acquired.
Gone are the days when programs were launched in the hope that funding would appear downstream. Now, if there isn’t room in the expected budget, needed though a system may be, it’s no-go.
“We call it the affordability analysis,” he said, observing that this term is often misunderstood. It means making sure “the phasing … hangs together,” so as one program waxes, another wanes, all the while living within expected funding. The master plot of these purchases “we call … sand charts,” he said. It’s taxing work, because the budget built within the service is carefully dovetailed to make sure that all the collective moving parts work in concert. The “uncertainty factor” is when Congress doesn’t agree, and the plan has to be redrawn, LaPlante said.
A key part of USAF’s plan is to take some things out of service—the A-10, U-2, and some of the E-8 JSTARS fleet are headliner examples—and use the savings to fund the new gear.
“We understand, we are not the decision-makers,” LaPlante acknowledged, but each perturbation of Congress denying permission to take a system down causes a return to the drawing board. Meanwhile, the calendar
“It’s a hard problem,” he said, but USAF has taken a hard-nosed approach that it won’t start any program until it’s sure it can carry it through. He cited as a recent example the Space Fence, which was delayed by sequestration. In 2013, USAF had to delay a contract for the Space Fence, a radar system designed to detect, count, and track orbital objects, urgently needed to replace a system too antiquated to support anymore.
“We would have awarded the contract in September or October of that year,” LaPlante recalled, “and we said, ‘We cannot award this contract,’?” because there was no certainty the funds would be there to pay for it. Not until after a bipartisan plan to temporarily lift sequestration spending caps was reached—the following spring—did USAF go ahead with the award.
“We figured out it cost us more money” to delay, he noted, “but we had no choice but to stop and wait.”
This will also be the default mode if programs enter a prolonged delay—whether caused by contractor protests, or technical setbacks, or Congress. “That’s how those situations are … handled,” he said. It means that “some programs don’t happen, … or at least we can’t do [them] now,” and it may be a while before the opportunity comes around again.
Three programs are so compelling—the bomber, the F-35 fighter, and the KC-46 tanker—that USAF will make changes in other programs to protect them. But some—he put the JSTARS recapitalization program in this category—are in a “gray area.”
“Depending on how that phasing is done, and which assumption is made in the budget, [JSTARS is] right on the line” between being in or out of the budget, LaPlante said. A Milestone A decision that would have funded some contractors to define their prospective JSTARS solutions was to have gotten the green light in August, but LaPlante said the program won’t really be on firm ground until Milestone B, which is a go for development. “That’s when the decision-makers at that time will say, ‘OK, do we have the money or not?’?”
He suggested that the T-X trainer is safe. It’s something the Air Force has “wanted and needed … for a while now. We’ve waited as long as we can.” Turns out, the year 2017, “when we really start to put money in the T-X,” is the ideal time to launch the program, in context with all the others.
“We picked that time because it was a very nice opportunity, when we had money available.” LaPlante added, “If we pushed it to the right five years, or had a time machine and pushed it to the left five years, it wouldn’t work.”
Not only development, but production has to be plotted on the sand chart. The new bomber will have a flyaway price, in 2010 dollars, of $550 million a copy. At that price, assuming a first flight circa 2024, “it’s probably in the ballpark of 10,12,14 a year,” LaPlante said. At that rate, and with production beginning in the early’20s, the LRS-B program would last anywhere from five to 10 years, depending on whether the final buy is closer to the projected low of 80 jets or the high of 100. The idea is not to start and stop or have spikes in production, but to “set up a stable and constant production line cycle,” with a good learning curve and a timetable that helps the supply chain be most efficient. That will help keep the price down, he said.
Discipline in the acquisition process has been saving real money for three years, LaPlante asserted. As one example, he said there have been no engineering design changes on the KC-46, “which is, of course, how you do a fixed-price contract.”
But acquisition law requires that program managers budget for engineering changes, resulting in an unused pot of money at the end of the year. Congress takes that money away to spend elsewhere, but it’s often reported publicly as “funding slashed” on the tanker or whatever program is in question. “Sometimes it’s good things that happen,” LaPlante observed.
In a July speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., LaPlante laid out five maxims he hopes will bring USAF’s new programs online with a minimum of turbulence.
The first of these, he said, is to “get the high priority programs right and keep them on track.” He told the group that spending more time making sure the requirements are precise, and reflect what’s truly needed, and then avoiding any changes is the surest way to prevent the upheaval that drives cost up. “To go fast, start slow,” he explained. If the job is done right before a program is in motion, once it gets going, it should go smoothly and predictably. He made the comment in the context of answering a question about when the LRS-B contract would be announced, saying he wouldn’t turn down a request from any part of his organization to “check one more thing” before letting the contract.
The second element in LaPlante’s code is to improve relationships with industry and be more “transparent” about what the service needs, and when. The longer companies know exactly what they’re working toward, the better the solutions they can offer, LaPlante stated. The “transparency” extends to the military user, so it knows the art of the technically feasible and doesn’t demand capabilities that offer relatively small utility but drive a big surge in cost.
The third element is for the government to “own the technical baseline” for key programs. Traditionally, companies have been able to get the inside track on upgrades and improvements for products they build, but if the government owns the tech data, it can hold competitions for upgrades. Usually, competition pushes costs down. Such a scheme is the plan for the LRS-B, which will be built in a series of block upgrades, he said.
Fourth, LaPlante wants to build on the “Better Buying Power” initiatives of Pentagon acquisition, logistics, and technology chief Frank Kendall. These include adopting best practices from industry and especially ensuring that small business—which frequently offers the best innovations—gets to compete for work and be involved, even in major projects. An example of this is a new competition USAF is running, where it will award a prize of $2 million to the entrant able to develop a new class of high-efficiency, lightweight, and highly reliable turbine engines in the 100-horsepower class. Such engines would have application across a wide range of USAF needs, particularly in remotely piloted aircraft.
Finally, LaPlante is looking to ensure that the Air Force keeps the long-term strategy in mind, doing the experimentation and innovation necessary to build and keep a technological edge, capturing what Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III has termed “strategic agility.”
These initiatives—and particularly Air Force performance in stabilizing programs and bringing down costs—are restoring the service’s reputation, once tarnished as being unable to manage competitions and programs effectively.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, a number of USAF acquisition projects went spectacularly wrong, incurring either huge cost overruns or resulting in big-ticket acquisitions being thrown out and started over. Among these were the SBIRS early warning satellite and a replacement for the KC-135 aerial tanker. Understandably frustrated, senior Pentagon leaders took away some of the Air Force’s acquisition authorities. However, as successes have built up with the rerun of the tanker, the LRS-B, and new initiatives like the T-X, USAF is getting some of that authority back.
Though he said he could only speak to the two years since he’s been in the Air Force acquisition shop, LaPlante said, “Every year we send a memo to [Kendall’s office on] which programs we would like the delegation to be returned to the Air Force, and the justification. And every year, … we’re getting them back.” LaPlante’s office later provided a list of some of these “returned” programs. They include the F-22 Baseline Program, returned in October 2013; the JASSM/JASSM-ER standoff missile programs, returned in September 2014; the RQ-4A/B Global Hawk, returned in February; and the F-22 Increment 3.2B upgrade, returned in April. LaPlante said he and Kendall often talk about the subject. “What’s most important to us is that there’s a good acquisition plan—good strategy and execution—more than whether [authority lies with] him or me.” LaPlante said he’ll sometimes defer to Kendall “even if I’m the acquisition authority on a program.”
However, LaPlante acknowledged that there is a morale and process disadvantage in not having full authority. It “affects the speed of approvals for people” and has “a real impact on the organization.” He said he and Kendall “understand that if you want to be really agile, you try to push [decision-making authority] as far down as you can.”
He added that “the higher you have it, the more ‘help’ you’re going to get, and that’s frustrating to people.”
Because of its size, the LRS-B contract would “by law” be awarded at Kendall’s level, LaPlante said. Though previous USAF leaders congratulated themselves for a “protest-proof” eventual tanker choice, LaPlante said the opportunity to appeal is a necessary element in the system and compels the Air Force to do a good job. The way to avoid a protest, or at least prevail in it, is to “do what you say you’re going to do,” he asserted. “If you say how you’re going to evaluate, that it’s clear and unambiguous, and then you evaluate it … in a credible and substantive way, that you followed exactly the process you said you’d follow,” then there shouldn’t be a problem, he said.
LaPlante also mentioned that only about 150 out of more than 100,000 Air Force contract awards were protested last year, and of those, only two were sustained. So, the rate of successful protests is “very low.”
The T-X and the JSTARS, because they are new, will pioneer some of LaPlante’s philosophies about how to structure programs. In both cases, industry has been brought in early to discuss what the Air Force needs, explain what the available technologies can deliver, and discuss trade-offs regarding the optimum performance for the lowest cost. It may be, for example, that a slightly shorter radar is far easier to maintain and integrate on a business jet than the unit now flying underneath the JSTARS fuselage.
On the T-X, LaPlante said, the Air Force started out by looking for an “off-the-shelf” solution—namely, a jet already in service that could be adapted to USAF’s needs at minimal cost and delivered with greater speed. However, “we didn’t want to exclude clean-sheet designs,” LaPlante said. “What we cared about was … in those requirements,” released in March, well ahead of when requirements would usually be unveiled in such a program.
He has noted that off-the-shelf is usually a misnomer and that systems procured that way are almost always heavily reworked—as the British Hawk trainer was significantly altered to serve as the Navy’s T-45 trainer. But to level the playing field as much as possible, a hard-cost bogey will likely be created so companies have a good idea of what to shoot for.
“We’re going to put some form of … cost requirement for source selection into it, such that the cost is actually a key factor.” USAF wants to “illuminate … what we’re willing to pay for and what we’re not willing to pay for.” Cost may be a key performance parameter on the program, as it will be on the LRS-B.
The Pentagon is pushing hard to rapidly insert new technologies in its combat systems, to recapture some of the technology edge it has lost to competitors. Top Pentagon and Air Force leaders say they will urge more prototyping to make this happen, to stimulate innovation and speed up the delivery of new systems.
There was a similar push in the 1990s that yielded some significant successes—the RQ-1 Predator remotely piloted aircraft is one example—but a lot of promising projects never bore fruit because there was no set process to propel them all the way through the system.
The Valley of Death
“It seemed to lose steam after about three years,” LaPlante acknowledged. The lesson learned is that there has to be a way to “institutionalize” the transition of experiments and prototypes into usable products.
In the past, such programs were “very personality-dependent. Leadership has to drive it,” he explained. But when the prototyping champions left, the impetus for experimentation often went with them. There was no obvious route forward for promising concepts, and they entered what he called the “valley of death” between research and development and acquisition.
Now, though, “I own the landing pad,” LaPlante said, and he’s working to create a smooth conduit for the transition. He’s making it clear that program offices are “expected” to mine the R&D accounts and experiments for capabilities they can use to upgrade their systems, or for unconventional solutions to new requirements. He said he’s hoping to create “an institutional ability to continue past the ins and outs of differing personalities, including my own.”
One of the biggest programs looming in the future is a capability to succeed the F-22 Raptor. It is not imminent. LaPlante’s office said the Raptor’s life expectancy easily stretches through the 2040s and possibly longer. However, it is a program that will depend on prototyping, experimentation, and new operational concepts, because no one is at all sure if what is needed will even be another airplane.
The new program is being explored through Air Dominance 2030, a multiservice survey of the technologies and requirements needed to control the air in the era beyond 2030. LaPlante said the heavy work being done now is to find out what the “kill chain” will look like by 2030-35.
While it’s “very early right now,” he thinks USAF is “successfully putting the right pieces together” from Air Force Research Laboratory, operators, and industry to explore how hypersonics, directed energy, and other nascent technologies will play in the air superiority mission, along with space, cyber, and electronic warfare.” It is defining possibilities, not an airplane.
Some have suggested that adversary advances in detection capabilities—such as new radars and infrared sensors—have rendered stealth obsolete for the next generation of weaponry. LaPlante rejected that theory outright.
“You take all the stealth you can get,” he said. “If you can drive stealth further, you’ll do it, and you don’t give that up.”