Army Acquisition Woes

From the mid 1970s through the early 1980s, the focus of the Army’s major acquisition program was on rebuilding the post-Vietnam force to face the challenges of the Soviet threat to Western Europe. In those days of extremely tight budgets, the Army had to exercise a remarkable degree of self discipline to decide which programs were really needed, and to shepherd them from conception to production and fielding. The Army’s challenge was to get the greatest possible increase in combat power with the smallest possible cost in dollars. Congress and the public were in no mood to support massive spending on defense, but the Army was in desperate need of new equipment. The only way the Army could convince the nation to support it was to have a well thought out plan, not just for acquisition, but how the Army would use that equipment, and why the programs supported had to be funded to implement that strategy.

In the end, as what later became known as the AirLand Battle doctrine began to gel, the Army focused on The Big Five- The M1 Abrams tank, the M2 Bradley fighting vehicle, the UH-60 Blackhawk utility helicopter, the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter, and the MIM-104 Patriot surface to air missile system.

All five of these programs were controversial at the time, as each had a high unit cost, but by the early 1980s, it was clear that each program was successful, and while expensive, a wise investment.

Since the Big 5, there hasn’t been any successful major Army modernization programs (with the possible exception of the Family of Medium Tactical Vehicles, the replacement for the old deuce-and-a-half and 5-ton trucks) . If you look at the major weapons for the Army today… It’s still M1s, M2s, UH-60s, and AH-64s, with Patriot still providing air defense.

The Army’s major procurement programs since then have mostly been a tale of woe. The poster child for letting ambition and requirements get out of touch with the state of the art, and the needs of the Army was the LHX program, which was originally designed to produce a family of helicopters that would replace the Huey, the Cobra, and the Kiowa. In the end, it was trimmed down to a light attack helicopter, the RAH-66 Comanche, but it was so hideously expensive, and filled such a niche role that it was superfluous to the real needs of the Army. But a program that runs for 20 years and costs untold billions of dollars is hard to kill. It took SecDef Rumsfeld a couple of stabs at the beast to finally slay it. Other programs that seemed to run forever included the Crusader howitzer project and the gigantic Future Combat System program.

The only procurement programs the Army seems to be able to run with anything resembling competence are those that are conducted outside the normal channels. such as the Stryker program (which was seen as an interim program until FCS came along) and quick reaction purchases such as the MRAP vehicle fleet and a lot of the personal equipment that the Army couldn’t find money for until it was in a shooting war (in spite of the fact that most of those purchases were relatively cheap).

Defense Professionals magazine has an OpEd on the Army’s programmatic woes.

This record of failure is all the more striking in view of the Army’s relative success with rapid acquisition of a variety of platforms and systems. The best known are the MRAP and M-ATV protected vehicles. But in many ways the acquisition of soldier clothing and individual equipment has been even more successful. PEO Soldier has demonstrated the ability to rapidly develop and deploy a range of new capabilities including remote weapons stations, enhanced low light/night vision goggles, man-portable robots, laser designators and cold weather clothing. Collaboration with third-party product integrators has resulted in an ability to rapidly meet a wide range of urgent operational needs for clothing and equipment at relatively low cost.
The question still unanswered is whether the broken peacetime acquisition system can be fixed. The Army has two major procurements coming soon. The first is the Ground Combat Vehicle (GCV), the successor to the Future Combat System. The second is the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) intended as the replacement for the lighter and less well protected Humvee. The GCV program has already been halted and restarted once. There are recent reports that the JLTV may be afflicted with that dreaded disease which has killed many Army programs in the recent past: changing requirements. The cost of the individual GCVs and JLTVs may also be a “killer.”

One of the hallmarks of recent troubled or failed programs in not just the Army, but all the services has  been “families” of systems. Every time one of the services starts a program that is bound to be expensive, they add requirements to the capabilities in order to justify spending so much money on the program. But that drives up the technical challenges and the cost, both of research and development, and the eventual unit price and the life-cycle costs. And the added “capabilities” demanded add technical risk to the program, which always results in cost overruns, and adds additional oversight, reviews, and changes to the program, all of which add greatly to the cost and timeline of the program.

Examples of this bloat in requirements abound. The VH-71 Marine One helicopter program, the JSF, the Navy’s LCS program, the FCS family of systems, you name it.

The current Ground Combat Vehicle system program is setting itself up for failure in a similar fashion. The Army seems to have convinced itself that it can procure a common vehicle to be used both as the successor for the Abrams tank and the Bradley family of vehicles.  While the Stryker family of vehicles comes in a wide variety of variants, the Army explicitly recognized that all variants would be compromises of one sort or another. But perfect tomorrow is the enemy of good enough today. But the GCV program doesn’t seem to recognize that.

Unless and until the Army can impose a disciplined set of realistic requirements, and stick to them, for each system and avoid at all costs overreaching and bloat in its programs, it is destined to fail again. While the Army and the other services have to operate under the ridiculously onerous DoD 5000 series of procurement regulations, they have also been their own worst enemies in acquisition. There are many members of Congress on both sides of the aisle that are willing to spend limited resources to fund the Army, but only if the money is well spent. And until the Army can show a clear and compelling case for its procurement strategy, they won’t have earned that goodwill, from either Congress or the American people. The leadership of the Army would be well advised to study the history of the Big Five.

5 thoughts on “Army Acquisition Woes”

  1. While I generally agree, I do have some qubble points to spend, and chose this: “Since the Big 5, there hasn’t been any successful major Army modernization programs”

    – The DGM-MSE communications systems that replaced Tri-Tac, and then itself is being upgraded (read replaced) today.
    – I would argue the Avenger system, although mostly a band-aid because of the failure of some other weapon system, was a successful modernization.
    – I seem to recall some talk around the first of the year about SINCGARS…..

    But those are arguably supporting systems upgrades, and as you say no major weapon systems. (Although I would throw in the M16A1 to A2 upgrade for arguments sake.)

    But no mention of SGT York? Sounds like I need to do a “history post” on that!

  2. Craig, I’d love to see your take on SGT York.

    I hear nightmare stories about that program, but never seem to get the whole picture from anywhere.

    1. The short version is: It didn’t work! The longer version is, it did things like shoot at random targets that weren’t flying by in the sky, which is always a dangerous thing.

  3. A couple of points of other possible success stories and why we have procurement issues.

    1. The CSS VSAT tactical satellite communication systems fielded in logistics units has been a huge success. Loggies finally have a way to connect while deployed on a dedicated, reliable communications platform.

    2. The family of UAVs has been a resounding success.

    3. Remember where the acquisition process begins…it does not begin with the acquisition community. It belongs in the doctrinal development communities….i.e. the combat developer in TRADOC for the Army. They come up with the concepts and hand them off to PMs to get funded and built. And in 21 years of this business I have yet to see a combat developer not try to put too much capability into a solution. This bogs down the development and drives up the cost. It also causes the complexity to rise.

    4. Defense industry consolidation has also had a big impact. When longtime players get bought by large conglomerates core competencies tend to dry up. Look at the shipbuilding woes for the Navy & the Coast Guard. Northrop & Grumman made great aircraft….they make lousy ships.

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