Air Force still has work to do on acquisition scheduling

The Air Force is still struggling to shorten its contract award times as it begins a big modernization push.

The Air Force still needs to improve on its acquisition schedule issues as the service is trying to transform its procurement tactics to help its modernization effort.

One of the Air Force’s top acquisition officials said he is not happy with how quickly the Air Force is buying and deploying some weapons systems.

“Schedule growth has gone up in some of the programs and we’ve got some key areas there that we’ve got to try to drive down reductions. Part of that is, and it’s important with industry, how long does it take me to get on contract?” Air Force Military Deputy for Acquisition Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch said Oct. 26 during the Unmanned Systems Defense Conference in Arlington, Virginia.

Bunch said the Air Force is monitoring how long it takes to begin a contract and set a goal of driving the time down.

Right now, the service is only monitoring sole-source contracts that are $50 million to $500 million. Bunch said in the last two years the Air Force has driven down the time to award from about 17 months to a year. The goal is to move that number to less than 10 months.

“You will say, ‘Well, that’s a really small subset Gen. Bunch, why wouldn’t you look at a bigger thing?’ Because if I can measure in that subset and I can learn what my drivers are in my contract timelines in that area, then I should be able to put resources in an appropriate area so we can drive it down more and figure out what our resource restrictions are and what are our problems,” Bunch said.

Another Air Force goal is to set more realistic schedules at the beginning of projects. Bunch said there are a couple of programs where the Air Force did not understand the technology or risk from the beginning.

“Those are biting me right now and we’ve got to do a better job setting a good schedule from the very beginning,” Bunch said.

Faster procurement has been on the Defense Department’s wishlist, especially since Defense Secretary Ash Carter came into office.

The Air Force is trying to better its procurement practices as it prepares for a huge modernization effort in the coming years.

The Air Force’s modernization budget is expected to grow by 73 percent from about $19 billion in fiscal 2015 to about $33 billion at its peak in 2023. The costs will then even out to about $25 billion per year around 2028.

The service’s modernization effort is making up a significant amount of the spending “bow wave” DoD is preparing for in the 2020s, so Bunch is under pressure to do things right.

“We have a lot of great capability in the permissive or in the non-full-up [anti-access/area-denial] and we’ve got to modernize to be more capable and that’s what a lot of those platforms are aimed at, but other programs that we are going after right now are JSTARS recapitalization, Ground-Based Strategic Deterrence, Long-Range Stand-Off weapon, UH-1N [Twin Huey] recapitalization, combat rescue helicopter, we have a new space launch system that we are trying to get out there and work through, we are doing a new ground station for GPS 3 … and we are working on new satellite programs,” Bunch said.

The Air Force has been working on shoring up acquisition practices for a while now.

About six years ago the service created its “should cost” initiative, which saved about $10 billion in program costs since its inception.

It requires program managers to set aside the historically-based independent cost estimates that are developed for all big programs and that DoD is required to base its budgets on, and instead, manage their programs according to what they ought to cost.

The Air Force’s more recent “should schedule” has not yet found the same success. The initiative was announced late last year and gives priority to a company that can deliver faster results in the design and development phase for established programs.

“If an industry partner can propose a solution that credibly offers a way to accelerate successful [engineering and manufacturing development] then that company would have a competitive advantage for the award,” Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at the launch.

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