PENTAGON: For the third year in a row, Air Force weapon programs have busted their schedules, taking longer to field, this time adding another 112 months to the 29 major weapons programs that the service monitors.
It’s a pattern. In 2012, schedule performance “continues to remain problematic and shows no signs of improvement.” In 2013, schedule problems mounted, getting a “poor” rating from the service, with more than 102 months added to major programs between September 2012 and September 2013.
Here’s the summary for the 2014 schedule problems from the annual Air Force report — “Performance of the Air Force Acquisition System” — on acquisition performance by Robert Pollock, director of the services’ acquisition excellence and change office (did you have to take a breath after that title?).
Schedule Performance remains challenged. An additional 112 cumulative months of schedule was added to Active ACAT I’s Portfolio for the 29 programs that consistently reported DAEs updates in FY14. Improvement is observed in schedule achievement due to several programs accomplishing their predetermined milestones; however approximately half of the ACAT I’s are estimating their next APB milestone objective will be missed by 3 months or less and one third of AF ACAT I MDAP/MAIS programs are estimating they will miss their upcoming milestone objective by six months or more. The active ACAT I MDAP average cycle time from Milestone B to C is 81 months and MS B to Initial Operating Capability (IOC) is 103 months.
For the third year in a row, Air Force weapons acquisition costs have dropped, but this time it was only by a few hundred millions–not billions. Three years ago costs dropped $7.5 billion. Two years ago costs were down an impressive $13.4 billion. This last year they dipped a relatively paltry $229 million.
This year? “Cost Performance trends have stabilized with indicators of resistance to continued improvement,” Pollock’s report says. “The ACAT I MDAP/MAIS portfolio acquisition cost estimate was reduced by $229 Million (Constant Year 12 $’s) in FY14 with fifteen of the 29 Active ACAT I MDAP/MAIS programs reporting acquisition cost estimate reductions.”
So has the Air Force stopped doing whatever made things so much better? No, says Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski. In an interview in her comfortable E-ring fourth floor office, Pawlikowski said that, basically, the service has squeezed the lemon dry, getting all the relatively easy savings it could find. Now we’re down to the really hard stuff.
What’s really impressive is that much of the savings over the last three years came from space systems, notorious for enormous cost overruns and schedule nightmares for much of the first decade of the twenty-first century.
“I think the cost has flattened out because of what I called the Willy Sutton approach to saving money. We went where the big money was,” Pawlikowski told me. Where did the biggest savings come from? “For me, it was AEFH (Advanced Extra High Frequency satellites) and SBIRS (Space Based Infrared System), and Scott Currell did it on launch, saving eight to nine billion.”
How did we do that, Pawlikowski asks rhetorically? “We applied Better Buying Power, and some of it was Should Cost, and just being better buyers.” But now that the lemon has been squeezed “you’re not going to see much change because they are mature production programs.”
There’s another bit of stability — and good news — among the major programs. Not a single Key Performance Parameter (known colloquially as requirements) changed during the year. Again, this appears to be a trend. As the report says in a sentence I have to quote just because it is such a perfect example of the English one sometimes encounters when dealing with the acquisition-obssessed: “Additionally, during FY14 no changes to KPP requirements were identified for unclassified ACAT I programs approved at an Air Force Requirement Oversight Council (AFROC) from 2009 forward.” Translation, no KPPs changed in 2014 for any program that had run the gauntlet of the service’s requirement czars since 2009.
But there is a worrying trend among smaller Air Force programs. Managers who run ACAT II programs are increasingly rating their programs as yellow or red. These ratings are not strictly based on data, Pawlikowski explains, but on the managers’ overall feeling about the full range of factors affecting the program. The Air Force has been so focused on getting the big programs right and on protecting their budgets that it may be taking its eye off these smaller programs. “I think what you see in there is ACAT1 PMs are growing in confidence, in their ability to manage their programs,” but ACAT II PMs “have some concerns, less confidence” mainly because the smaller programs are having their budget cuts while the larger programs are protected, the general believes.
So the Air Force may be protecting its first-borne programs well. What about the younger, smaller and more vulnerable? Given how important to the fight some of those smaller programs, Pawlikowski and her colleagues will have to make sure the goodness they have brought to the big programs comes to all of them.