One of the first casualties was the Crusader artillery program, which was canceled after the Pentagon spent more than $2 billion on it. Then there was the Comanche helicopter debacle, which got the ax after $8 billion. More than twice that amount had been sunk into the Army’s Future Combat System, but that program got killed, too.
In all, between 2001 and 2011 the Defense Department spent $46 billion on at least a dozen programs — including a new version of the president’s helicopter — that never became operational, according to an analysis by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Sometimes, the engineering complexity of a procurement program means that it will take a long time to come to fruition. And in that time, the needs of the service may change.
Of course, some programs start out overly ambitious, and are doomed to failure. That Army in particular seems fond of this approach. The RAH-66 Comanche started out as one of three variants of a program known as LHX, a program started in the early 1980s, to replace all the UH-1, AH-1, OH-6 and OH-58 helicopters. The Army spend over six years just trying to figure out what it wanted, before even getting around to issuing an RFP to industry. And because stealth was the buzzword at the time, the Army insisted it needed a stealth helicopter. Now, you can build a stealthy helicopter. But that adds a lot to the cost. Or, you could simply do what helicopters normally do, and fly nap of the earth, and use terrain masking to stay off enemy radar. It’s cheaper. And its what a stealth helicopter would do anyway.
But for all the stupidity the services bring to the procurement table, they’re not solely to blame. The Federal Acquisition Regulations, or FAR are some of the most complex, byzantine rules in existence. So much money is spent ensuring that procurement is “fair” and free of corruption that the process becomes more important than the product.
This strangulation by regulation has led down some strange paths. When the Air Force started to look to replace its aging KC-135 fleet, it knew exactly what it wanted. It wanted a simple tanker conversion of the Boeing 767. But the Air Force couldn’t just order tankers, or just ask Congress for the money. In an effort to sidestep having to issue an RFP and hold a competition, the Air Force came up with a convoluted plan to lease 100 converted tankers from Boeing. The plan blew up in the Air Forces face, exposed corruption in the civil service, would have cost the taxpayers more money, and left Boeing holding onto the tankers at the end of the lease. On the other hand, it would have put very capable tankers on the ramp very quickly, and a low cost sale to the Air Force of the used tankers at the end of the lease was pretty plausible.
Instead, the Air Force was forced to hold multiple competitions between Boeing and Airbus, and do so in such a way the whichever tanker it eventually bought (the 767 eventually won) would end up being more complicated and expensive than the simple plane they originally envisioned. So here we are a decade and a half later, and the first fully equipped KC-46 still hasn’t flown. It’s still four years away from entering operational service.
Anything that make the acquisition process more streamlined is a good thing. Let’s hope DoD and Congress can move forward with some real reforms.