A lost decade

Quick: Name the last time that the US Air Force successfully signed a contract for an all-new aircraft, competitively-sourced, that wasn’t later canceled or indefinitely postponed due to legal challenges?

Answer: October 26, 2001, or nearly seven years ago.

That was the date when then-Secretary of the Air Force Jim Roche announced that Lockheed Martin won the Joint Strike Fighter competition. To their eternal regret, I believe, Boeing did not file a protest.

(Of course, even in that case, the JSF joint program office — led by US Marine Corps Maj Gen Mike Hough — actually managed the competition. The air force happened to be JSF’s “executive agency” at the time, which gave Roche the right to announce the winner.)

The last time the air force successfully managed and signed a contract for an all-new, manned aircraft was in 2000 for the Boeing C-40B. But, in that case, there was no competition and the air force simply gave Boeing the contract. (The USAF has signed a contract since then for the unmanned MQ-9 Reaper, but that was also sole-sourced and based on the design of the MQ-1 Predator.)

Since 2001, the air force has failed even once to successfully select an all-new aircraft after a competition. Failed attempts include the original lease-buy deal for 100 KC-767s in 2003, and the E-10A program that was canceled in 2005.

Moreover, the CSAR-X contract remains in competition after the Government Accountability Office twice over-turned the air force’s selection of the Boeing CH-47. And now, of course, the second attempt to replace the USAF’s oldest KC-135Es is again tied up in GAO purgatory.

Compare that to the navy’s record over the same period. Since 2001, the navy, which has other priorities besides buying new aircraft, has successfully signed contracts for P-8A, VH-71 and CH-53K. (Granted, the execution of the VH-71 deal has been problematic, but they at least manged to sign the contract.) Another contract — for the Broad Area Maritime Surveillance program — is signed, but its status is pending a GAO protest verdict.

The army hasn’t done so so bad either. Since 2001, the army gave up on the RAH-66, but signed contracts for three manned aircraft: the UH-70 UH-72 light utility helicopter, the ARH-72 ARH-70 and the Joint Cargo Aircraft. (Granted, again, that execution on the ARH-72 ARH-70 deal has been rough.) The army also held a successful competition for a major UAV contract, awarding the extended-range, multi-purpose (ER/MP) contract to General Atomics for the MQ-1C Sky Warrior.

Sure, contract execution is up-and-down, but the air force’s sister services are at least able to sign contracts for new aircraft.

Indeed, you have to go all the way back to the YF-22/YF-23 fly-off in 1991 to find the last time the air force successfully managed a competition and completed a contract signing for an all-new, manned aircraft that eventually entered the inventory. (I don’t count the C-130J because it was not competed, and, in fact, was forced on the air force by Lockheed’s allies in Congress. The RQ-4 Global Hawk and the RQ-1 Predator were also handed to the air force by Congress. Likewise for the variety of business jets also acquired by the air force since 1991.)

Amazing, right?


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13 Responses to A lost decade

  1. Mike Plunkett 24 June, 2008 at 5:08 pm #

    Perhaps a spot of (understandable) confusion/finger trouble with the US Army helicopter programmes? I think you mean the ARH-70 and the UH-72…

  2. Matthew G. Saroff 24 June, 2008 at 5:08 pm #

    More argument for abolishing the USAF and making it a part of the Army again.

  3. Stephen Trimble 24 June, 2008 at 5:12 pm #

    Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far. Look at the army’s record with both small arms and ground vehicles, and the records are pretty similar. Also, look at the navy’s record with ships. Yet, neither service has as much trouble acquiring aircraft as the air force does. I’ve also seen this phenomenon with the coast guard. Each service seems to struggle most with buying the technologies most near and dear to the hearts, perhaps because it’s just too important to them. But what do I know?

  4. Scott Ferrin 24 June, 2008 at 5:35 pm #

    When a company files a protest they should be forced to foot the bill for all court costs (of all the players) and all costs due to the delay of the protest in the event they lose. This “let’s automatically file a protest” is a huge waste of money to the taxpayer and smacks of frivolous lawsuits. If they have a case, they win, and everybody pays their own bills. If they don’t then they get slapped for wasting everybody’s time.

  5. Stephen Trimble 24 June, 2008 at 5:40 pm #

    Hi Scott — I’m not sure that will solve the problem either. Spending a few million dollars in legals is nothing compared to reversing a $35 billion contract loss. A company would be crazy — and, perhaps, even negligent to their shareholders — if they didn’t at least try to protest the decision under the current rules.

    Another option may be to strike out the GAO protest option altogether and force the companies to take their cases directly to the courts.

  6. Flare 24 June, 2008 at 9:12 pm #

    As previously stated . . . no service is “clean” from having problems with the the large (big $$$) acquisitions. The Army stealth helicopter called Comanche has to be one of the largest aviation acquisition blunders. According to Wikipedia . . . “About US$8 billion had already been invested in the Comanche program at the time of its termination and an additional US$450-680 million was required in contract termination fees to main program partners Sikorsky and Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.”

    Bottom line: instead of slamming one service over another . . . one should consider attacking the process, rules and environment, albeit not as entertaining.

  7. Stephen Trimble 24 June, 2008 at 9:22 pm #

    I agree the other services are not exactly innocent. The army’s Comanche is a great example and so is the navy’s A-12 fiasco. But, you also have to admit, both services quickly learned from their mistakes. The army took the $14.7 billion money in the Comanche budget and completely recapitalized their worn our aviation fleet. After the A-12, the navy learned to cleverly avoid over-stretching on technology, and instead focused on buying upgraded derivatives of the F-14 and F/A-18 for the next 20 years. They still don’t have a long-range, stealthy attack jet on the carrier, but, unlike the aircraft, they do have hundreds of new aircraft with many modern capabilities, except all-aspect stealth of course.

  8. John Penta 24 June, 2008 at 10:20 pm #

    Unfortunately, there are no good options. I’ve suggested disbarring unrealistically lowballing or clueless contractors, but it was then pointed out that that would be counterproductive.

    I think we’re stuck over a barrel here, folks.

  9. Jimmy 25 June, 2008 at 3:33 am #

    I think the real problem here is the “innovation” of contracting for “Best Capability/Dollar”, where no one has a good definition of “Best Capability”.

    The JCA is such a great program, where we are buying an aircraft we retired a few years ago because the USAF wanted to save money.

  10. Formerly known as Skeptic 25 June, 2008 at 3:04 pm #

    1996 T-6A Texan II

  11. Stephen Trimble 25 June, 2008 at 5:42 pm #

    Nice job, Fomerly Known as Skeptic. You got me. I hereby stand corrected. Of course, if the only manned aircraft that the air force can successfully introduce via competitive sourcing is a turboprop trainer, that doesn’t exactly hurt my point. But it doesn’t do my facts any good! So thanks for the correction.

  12. janitorial company 9 July, 2010 at 2:12 pm #

    Excellent job.

  13. Maximo Piccola 13 October, 2010 at 5:55 pm #

    By using the it managed services framework agreement, public sector organisations will have access to a compliant, sustainable procurement process.

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