Washington Watch

Nov. 1, 2012

Fine Lines in Acquisition

It will be tricky to manage Air Force programs in a culture where neither the budget nor Capitol Hill will tolerate delays, overruns, or failure in technology programs—but Air Force Materiel Command’s new commander thinks it can be done as long as USAF sticks to proven concepts. Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger said it’s impossible to impose a zero-defect mentality on basic research.

“The whole objective of science and technology … is to explore new avenues to get our missions accomplished,” she said in a September interview. Some of those paths “simply don’t come to fruition,” and in “the discovery and maturation stage, I maintain that the zero-defect culture doesn’t exist and really cannot. That would be really detrimental to us.”

However, Wolfenbarger believes that with tight funding, the Air Force is compelled to be less “aggressive” with setting requirements for new programs of record than it has been in the past. The F-22—a program Wolfenbarger was closely associated with during her career—produced an “awesome weapon system,” but if it were being launched today, it would be structured differently, she said.

“We would stipulate that those revolutionary technologies could still be incorporated into a program of record, but we’d want to wring them out and prove them out in a technology program” first.

Programs have to be built on technologies already well in hand.

Where AFMC will be “held accountable to cost and schedule,” there now has to be “a high confidence approach” to ensure technologies are mature enough to meet schedule and cost goals.

The Air Force is willing to take risks and “leapfrog, and get after revolutionary technologies, but we want to do that prior to establishing a program of record,” she said. “There certainly is less willingness to see growth and overruns and missed expectations,” and USAF must spend the nation’s money wisely.

For the KC-46, the Air Force set appropriate requirements, which now can’t be changed without top-level approval, Wolfenbarger noted. There are a large number of “lessons learned” from the on-again, off-again tanker replacement program, and these can be applied to other projects, she said.

One of the most crucial new technology efforts is the Air Force’s long-range strike bomber. The “intent” of the bomber program “is to leverage proven, mature technologies in that weapon system to establish sound requirements early, at the most senior levels of our Air Force, and keep them stable,” said Wolfenbarger.

Moreover, USAF has established “a unique oversight structure” for the bomber program. It is “very small, very highly skilled, with senior oversight. And the belief,” the general added, is that it is “progressing well to the schedule it is on.”

To further improve efficiency and save money, Wolfenbarger said USAF is taking a hard look at contractor logistics support (CLS) vs. organic work performed by the Air Force.

“We are seeing cost growth across the board in our weapon system sustainment accounts, but in particular our focus area is in the CLS arena,” she said. AFMC is “relooking” at weapon systems where it was once expected that they would be serviced under contractor logistics support for the life of the program.

“We are now pulling some of that [CLS] activity into our organic” efforts, she said. Such programs include the legacy C-17 airlifter and the still-developmental F-35 strike fighter. For the fighter, decisions will have to be made in concert with the program’s various stakeholders—which include two other services and eight partner countries.

Growth During Contraction

While the Air Force is reducing personnel and force structure, AFMC is still adding people to recapture lost expertise. “We realized a few years ago that we had allowed [a] portion of our acquisition workforce to atrophy, to get to a level that wasn’t sustainable, in terms of both numbers and skill sets,” Wolfenbarger said.

Some of that expertise had migrated “solely to industry,” she explained, and some of AFMC’s new hiring is needed because “we felt we just had smaller numbers than we needed to be able to execute” on programs across the spectrum.

One area that atrophied was the acquisition and logistics career field, where there were “too few resources” to accomplish the task of cost estimating.

“Even in this downsized environment, … we’ve managed to realize a growth,” Wolfenbarger said. AFMC increased by 2,000 people and would have added even more but, like all other commands, was under orders to find efficiencies and reduce manpower due to austerity measures demanded a few years ago by then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

The growth is possible in part because AFMC previously “freed up 1,051 manpower authorizations and $109 million per year,” Wolfenbarger said.

Even so, though “we are on a growth path” in the Fiscal 2013 budget request,” she said that “we didn’t achieve the levels [of manpower] that we had established as a requirement” during the Future Years Defense Program.

The Defense Department has directed AFMC to maintain a spending floor of three percent of its total obligation authority to basic science and technology. Wolfenbarger said that number “may go up or down” as AFMC’s budget rises or falls, but three percent is the minimum.

DOD “has insisted that we maintain a strong S&T base. … We can’t foreclose the future with short-sighted decisions today.”