—Michael C. Sirak
Nov. 21, 2008—John Young, the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer, said yesterday he has drafted a memo to the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama that alerts it to the most pressing acquisition issues that will require action in the first few months of the new Administration.
The document lists programs that have some sort of milestone approaching or ones that the Obama Pentagon “likely will have an interest in examining early on,” he said.
“Pretty high” on the list, Young said, is the Air Force’s F-22 fighter program. The KC-X tanker is also included on it, he noted.
F-22 is always a hot subject when it comes to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, which has sparred with the Air Force in recent years over the size of the stealth fighter fleet. This year, the Office of the Secretary of Defense did not include any money to buy more F-22s beyond the 183 airframes on order that Lockheed Martin will deliver by the end of 2011. But it did commit to keeping the production option open for the next Administration by not ordering the line closed.
OSD’s current leadership clearly favors ramping up F-35 production over more F-22s, even though the Air Force’s stated requirement, as of today, remains at 381. Despite OSD’s stance, Congress added money to the defense budget in Fiscal 2009 so that the front end of the F-22 production line would remain active until at least early next year. At that point, the new Administration can decide whether to keep buying more airframes or let the line close. Congress’ action is meant to prevent the potentially substantial costs of restarting the manufacturing line after a production break.
Young said, from his perspective, the F-22 debate is not being informed by all of the facts. (For supporters of the F-22 program, this may sound like the pot calling the kettle black after OSD has ignored even its own sponsored study of future fighter force structure that pointed to the need for many more F-22s than 183.)
For example, recent data on the F-22 shows that the aircraft has a mission-capable rate hovering around 62 percent, he said, noting that this is worse than what was expected with the stealthy fighters.
“I think that is troubling,” he said.
Further, “the airplane is proving very expensive to operate,” Young continued. “In general, the maintenance on the airplane is too high,” with the trend line actually moving in a negative direction, he said.
Young reiterated his position that the focus should be on bringing all F-22s already ordered up to the same higher capability configuration (Block 35 with increment 3.2 software build) vice buying more of them.
Even that will cost about $8.3 billion, including $6.3 million for the research and development work and $2 billion to modify the aircraft, he estimated.
“Those bills, those discussions, need to be had before, I think, you talk about buying more jets,” he said, adding, “there is clearly work that needs to be done ... to make that airplane both capable and affordable to operate.”
As for KC-X, Young said the Air Force is “aggressively” reviewing the tanker’s requirements with his office’s involvement. He said the requirements definitely will need some adjustment.
“We cannot have 800 tradable requirements again,” said Young, referring to the original KC-X competition that ended up with Northrop Grumman winning, Boeing subsequently winning its legal protest, and a reopened contest now on hold.
Instead, Young said he wants the Air Force to get down to “a minimum set of requirements” for the KC-X solicitation to industry. He continued, saying that OSD champions a two-part source selection process: first, evaluating whether the offerors’ bids “are technically acceptable,” and second, putting out a call for best price.
“The best price is going to win because then I’ll get the best deal for the taxpayer, and I’ll get my minimum set of requirements met,” explained Young, noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates strongly supports this approach to overcome the complicated and politically charged acquisition.
“I can tell you for sure, I think, that that is the path he and I and others will recommend to the new Administration,” Young said.
Young also touched upon his “frustration” over the fact that the Air Force’s CSAR-X rescue helicopter contest isn’t further along. Just last month, USAF announced that there would be a “minor delay” to the multi-billion-dollar contract award so that it could explain better to the three competing helicopter teams how it will make its decision. This move quashed any hopes of choosing the winning helicopter by year’s end.
Young said the problems discovered were similar to the ones that crept up in the KC-X program: not properly documenting all of the justifications in making evaluation decisions. Young credited an OSD independent team that is observing CSAR-X for alerting him to issues with the CSAR-X program.
“They went in and said ‘CSAR-X is not in a good position to be awarded right now,’” he said. “I just wished we’d all found that sooner, because we were marching up to the potential for a November or December award. So to postpone this in October was not optimal.”
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