#AFA10: How AFSOC subverts protest-happy contractors

It may say something about today’s military acquisition process that a three-star general cites “litigation avoidance” as the top priority for his acquisition strategy.

But that is what Lt Gen Donald Wurster, chief of Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC), told a standing-room only audience at the AFA convention today. Wurster also shared a method AFSOC has developed to protest-proof new acquisitions of major weapon systems.

The issue came up two years ago when AFSOC attempted to buy 16 AC-27J gunships.

Wurster says he asked his staff: “How do we buy AC-27s without the big dogs [ie, contractors] poking each other in the eye?”

The solution, Wurster says, lies in bypassing the traditional procurement process completely. Instead of asking for competitive proposals, AFSOC would bolt onto  the existing C-27J procurement contract. Then, the AFSOC would compete the gunship modifications for the C-27J under a task order from an existing services contract, such as the F2AST mechanism, Wurster says.

It’s not unlike the strategy AFSOC has traditionally used to develop its specialized versions of C-130s, UH-60′s and CH-53s.  But it’s the first time AFSOC has used the strategy specifically to avoid procurement litigation.

In this specific case, AFSOC never got the chance to see if its strategy might work. The US Congress rejected the AC-27 gunship plan, Wurster says, although he adds the “door is not closed”.

But AFSOC also has another strategy to fight the proprietary interests of defense contractors, Wurster says. AFSOC, for instance, is insisting on installing a new computer processor on board its aircraft that is independent of the operational flight program.

“It gives us the capability to [add new payloads] without sending our aircraft out to Edwards [AFB] because the software we just changed moves the aileron,” Wurster says.

If the idea is unpopular with the aircraft manufacturers, Wurster is decidedly unsympathetic.

“We’re going to put it on there,” Wurster told an AFA audience thick with contractors, “whether you like it or not”.


6 Responses to #AFA10: How AFSOC subverts protest-happy contractors

  1. Rod Anderson 14 September, 2010 at 5:40 pm #

    So AFSOC is going to install a “computer processor” aboard its aircraft without flight testing. Can this be true? No wonder the contractors are concerned. Wonder why flight crews aren’t as well!

    Unless this “computer processor” has absolutely no interface with any aircraft systems, I’d say this is a pretty risky way of saving a buck.

  2. Jetcal1 14 September, 2010 at 7:47 pm #

    That’s funny, I must have missed the part about the lack of flight testing.

  3. Dave 14 September, 2010 at 7:58 pm #

    As long as it doesn’t touch the Operational Flight Program, it should work just fine. Finally someone has the balls to do something like this.

  4. CBD 14 September, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    Geez,
    A separate, flexible, readily updated computing system to power alternate functions/applications without modifying (endangering) the core functional firmware/software of the entire aircraft? It’s almost like we’re living post-1990!

    Good on AFSOC for realizing you can bolt on computers and their software as readily as you can bolt on gun mounts.

    Re: Mr Anderson’s comment:
    The core purpose of this system is to ensure that new software integration won’t require an extensive flight test program. They will certainly flight-test any new systems that affect the flight characteristics of the plane, but updating this peripheral system won’t require that work.

    If the new system crashes, it doesn’t bring down the plane. If you want to allow for interoperability with a new sub-system, you can test it in a computer lab with an isolated example of this computing system. No need to remove an expensive airframe from field work to test out a new version of the software.

    There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be able to have information from the avionics feed out to a separate computer system without degrading the function of the core flight systems.

    A definite concern for major defense contractors who will no longer earn millions in overhead for what is essentially a peripheral systems upgrade. A major boon for AFSOC (and, hopefully, its in-house engineers) in terms of making the most out of their available equipment and taking ownership of the development process.

  5. RunningBear 15 September, 2010 at 3:58 pm #

    This is a commercial transport plane not a one or two seat military fighter. The list is endless for commercial transports being converted to military applications as in the AC-27J. The flight computers “DO NOT” have to be connected to the missions systems (in the back) and thus do not require interfaces and testing that lead to endless hours and costs for integration testing. Safety of flight testing yes, no doubt. Best reference of point is the USMC Harvest Hawk “Naval Air Systems Command says it’s completed Phase 1 testing of the Harvest Hawk roll-on/roll-off weapons kit for the US Marine Corps’ KC-130J tanker/transport.”

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