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​Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch is optimistic about achieving the ends of USAF’s AOC modernization program, with or without Northrop Grumman, which has been working on the project since 2013. USAF photo by Jerry Saslav.

—Gideon Grudo

USAF’s push to bring its air operations center into the modern era—years in the works, hundreds of millions of dollars over its initial budget, and currently paused for lack of Fiscal 2017 funding—will eventually reach its goal, said the senior uniformed acquisition official, because it’s critical.

The program will achieve its ends, Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch told Air Force Magazine, with or without Northrop Grumman.

At What Cost is Two Better Than One?

Holistically, the project is an upgrade to the current AOC Weapon System 10.1—the software that for more than two decades has received, hosted, and parsed incoming data used in fusion warfare.

The upgrade is appropriately tagged AOC-WS 10.2. It’s focused on cybersecurity and open architecture, two elements that 10.1 didn’t prioritize when it came online in the 1990s. While comprised mostly of software, the program also delivers some hardware like computers, servers, and other related equipment.

“We weren’t as worried about cyber,” Bunch told Air Force Magazine. “Cyber vulnerabilities and cybersecurity weren’t on any of our screens back then.”

To amend the weapon system with these elements as pathfinders is a large undertaking, one that USAF chose Northrop Grumman to work in 2013, three years after Lockheed Martin walked away from the project.

The Lockheed relationship goes back to 2008 with what Bunch’s office called “a small initial investment to begin concept development activities,” but it wasn’t able to provide particulars about that investment as of press time. But the project wasn’t officially a program of record until the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, or AT&L, decided it was “technologically feasible” in 2013, a determination defined as Milestone B. That’s when Northrop stepped up.

Northrop’s pricetag for the development phase of the project was $374 million in 2013, but has since risen to $745 million, according to Bunch’s office. The program’s entire lifespan, including procurement and support, is now projected to cost taxpayers over $3.5 billion ... so far.

It is expected to deploy fully in December 2019, nearly three years later than the originally planned January 2017 launch. The numbers are all derived from an independent cost estimate of the program. Included in the overall price hike is a sustainment cost increase of $500 million, covering the extra time the program will operate, from an initial plan of 2027 but now running through 2032.

The program’s price increase, continued issues with meeting the program’s milestones, and a schedule delay of more than 12 months forced the program to a halt. USAF couldn’t keep the project going without an additional infusion of funds, which Congress declined to provide. Specifically, USAF needed an additional $66.3 million on top of the program’s already appropriated—and spent—$28.9 million this year. So, on April 19, USAF issued Northrop Grumman a stop work order.

Whether the company continues work on the project despite not being paid is up to Northrop, which declined to comment on the program. If the company does decide to continue working on the halted program, it wouldn’t be the first time. Early in 2016,  Northrop is believed to have continued some level of effort on the B-21 bomber program, despite a stop work order while Boeing’s protest of the contract award was resolved. The Government Accountability Office denied Boeing’s protest on the stealth plane, and presumably, Northrop’s momentum on the project wasn’t broken.

Two Birds, One Network

The AOC 10.2 program rests on two key underpinnings: Cybersecurity must be built into the current AOC network and the components of the network need to be upgradeable. An example would be a new mobile app, which can be installed on a year-old smartphone. Such an app can be a few days old but works just fine on a much older phone because the phone was created with an “open architecture” that accepts new programs. This is crucial because some of the “apps” the AOC uses now and will into the future aren’t wholly owned or controlled by USAF, Bunch said. Some of them are third party.

“If I move a captain who works in air operations in CENTCOM to the Pacific area, I don’t have to retrain them,” Bunch said. “I want them to have standard things they’re looking at.” Avoiding “retrains,” as Bunch put it, is another one of the goals of the new network, aside from the cybersecurity and programming openness.

Once the program ran past its timelines several times, Bunch was forced to submit a Critical Change report to Congress, which would be the program’s second critical change, the first one being the 2013 change Northrop agreed to.

According to DOD guidelines, such a report outlines—among other things—whether the program is “essential to national security,” if any alternatives could provide “equal or greater capability at less cost,” whether new cost estimates are reasonable, and whether the management of the program is “adequate.” It’s also the source of the additional $66.3 million figure USAF asked Congress to provide. Though this is similar to a so-called “Nunn-McCurdy” breach, somewhat different rules are at work.

“We had a bunch of people go in and look,” Bunch said, describing the group as in-house experts and members of the AT&L’s Defense Digital Services. This is a small team that “talks to engineers, talks to decision makers” for about a week and comes back with recommendations based on best commercial practices and other technical wisdom. Other reviewers were an Air Force independent review team, the DOD’s Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation team, and an Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Command, Control, Communications, Cyber, Business Systems team.

These experts delivered feedback on the program in the form of, among other things, “deficiency reports,” but Bunch’s office told Air Force Magazine it couldn’t provide “specific” information regarding those.

After getting feedback from these experts, Bunch’s office changed the “methodology” of the project, he said. The program was “rebaselined,” including a change to how Northrop developed the software and how it conducted interim testing on the software instead of waiting on milestones. Setting a new baseline—a fresh scope of work to be done, the schedule, the cost—required more money than was appropriated, so Bunch had to ask Congress to reprogram money from other places in the FY17 budget to keep the project above water. That didn’t happen, but he is keeping everyone abreast of the development of the program’s needs because “with a Critical Change, you have to be very transparent,” he said.

Uncertain Future, Critical Congress

Until the next fiscal year potentially brings new money to the project, there’s little Bunch can do to get Northrop to work on AOC 10.2, and even then, it may not be Northrop doing the work.

“We would have to see what Congress decides when they review our proposal. [We] can’t run a program without having all the dollars in the program. We don’t know what that response will be,” Bunch said. Among the options available are marching “on the path we’re on or off the path we’re on, or somewhere in between … The aperture is wide open. I don’t want to narrow it a whole lot,” he said.

When asked if Northrop keeps its grasp on the contract, Bunch said, “We’re looking at all options.” The requirements were approved by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council “as still critical and needed. We know we need to have something to meet those requirements.”

If Bunch has to “shift” the way he meets those requirements, he will.

The next step in the process of moving AOC 10.2 ahead is holding a meeting with the OSD AT&L to discuss a way forward. No date had been set yet, but it should happen soon and definitely before FY18, Bunch predicted, but there’s no deadline for it to occur.

“Right now,” Bunch said, the program is in a “strategic pause” until 2018. “And then we will continue on.”​