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Obama’s Acquisition Leaders Head For The Doors

Posted by Colin Clark on

Northrop Grumman Long Range Strike Bomber concept (LRSB)

Northrop Grumman Long Range Strike Bomber concept (LRSB)

WASHINGTON: It may have happened before but I can’t remember when the top acquisition officials of two of the three services announced their resignations in the same month — let alone on the same day.

But both Bill LaPlante, the lead buyer for the Air Force, and Heidi Shyu, his counterpart at the Army, did just that yesterday, marking the end of significant new acquisition efforts by the Army and the Air Force. However, the Army has done so little in acquisition during the second half of the Obama administration that it may be moot.

Bill LaPlanteBill LaPlante clearly held on until the final decision was made on the winner of the $80 billion-plus Long Range Strike Bomber.

An Air Force official tells me that LaPlante will go to his new job at the Mitre Corp. by the end of this month, so he will be long gone by the time the 100-day clock runs out Valentines Day on the Boeing-Lockheed protest of the Air Force contract award to Northrop Grumman.

As a fellow Cub fan and Chicago boy, I always enjoyed LaPlante’s seemingly direct approach. Few senior Pentagon leaders are as good at speaking quickly and saying little of substance — when that was his goal. He and Frank Kendall, head of Pentagon acquisition, have worked persistently to control costs and requirements. As Breaking D readers know, the Air Force has pushed costs down each of the last three years, though schedule continues to stretch out.

“Bill LaPlante was a breath of fresh air, smart and engaging, but he was challenged in trying to change the Air Force’s acquisition culture. The final verdict on Dr. LaPlante’s legacy as Air Force acquisition executive will hinge to two issues,” defense consultant Loren Thompson said. Thompson, one of the most experienced observers of Pentagon acquisition, said. “First, will the service jettison Russian rocket engines (RD-180) in a timely fashion by expeditiously developing a new American engine? So far, the service seems to be dragging its feet, and its main launch provider (United Launch Alliance) is making moves detrimental to the space-launch industrial base.”

Thompson also pointed to the LRSB protest as key test of just how effective the Air Force was in scrubbing its requirements and contract. “Second, will the process used to select a future bomber be vindicated or called into question by the protest Boeing has launched?  It appears that the winning team bid a negative rate of return on development, and then was rescued by an Air Force doubling of its bid. Even if that passes the smell test at GAO, it will be a political drag on the program,” Thompson argues.

(We remind readers that Thompson does have a dog or two in this fight. Boeing and Lockheed contribute to the think tank for which he works, the Lexington Institute. He’s also a consultant to Lockheed.)

Sydney J. Freedberg Jr. photo

Heidi Shyu

Shyu’s tenure, Thomspon argues, “was a disappointment, because the Army’s modernization plan largely disappeared on her
watch; she has little to point to in the way of a legacy.”

However, Shyu made it through the annual AUSA conference and the award of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV). That was, of course, the only major new acquisition the Army has made in a very long time.

This leaves Sean Stackley, who leads Navy and Marine acquisition, as the only remaining service acquisition executive. Presuming he remains until,near the end of the administration, that means he will be the senior service acquisition official.

Frank Kendall, the overall head of Pentagon acquisition, remains. Given his deep commitment to improving acquisition and his understandable concern with his legacy, I think Kendall is likely to stay as long as practicable and his health holds.

This late in the game, it’s hard to believe anyone will be found who’s willing to try and get confirmed to replace Shyu or LaPlante before the end of the Obama administration. That means we’re looking at their military deputies and anyone who’s named “acting” to take their places. As we all know, that means much less vigor in the acquisition process since an acting just never has the clout that a confirmed official does.


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