Loren Thompson, president of the Lexington Institute think tank, argues in his regular column for Forbes that the new Air Force bomber program has learned the right lessons from past acquisition programs and applied the “best practices of the military acquisition community.” In Thompson’s estimation, the Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B) program is positioned to succeed. While expensive, Thompson says, it has well-defined requirements and a crack program-management team has put a limit on cost. A competition between a Northrop Grumman team and a combined Boeing-Lockheed Martin team will impose discipline on the design process.
So what can go wrong? Plenty.
Thompson’s conclusion points to the problem with his entire argument:
The bottom line on the Long Range Strike Bomber is that the Air Force has applied just about every available lesson from past acquisition efforts to fashion a program that should succeed well in the absence of political interference.
The absence of political interference in acquisition programs is impossible. At their core, acquisition programs are the product of politics–military politics, industry politics, and, perhaps most importantly, congressional politics.
In their text on defense politics, Professors Harvey Sapolsky, Eugene Gholz, and Caitlin Talmadge identify two types of uncertainty all acquisition programs face: political uncertainty and technological uncertainty. The two types interact with one another.
Uncertainty is inherent in politics because political priorities can change. In the acquisition of military hardware, the focus usually shifts between cost, schedule, and corruption—or some combination thereof. In the 1980s, corruption in defense contracting garnered a great deal of political bandwidth. Today, cost and schedule matter most.
Technological uncertainty comes into play in two ways. First, complex weapons systems inevitably run into day-to-day engineering problems. Second, the price tag for technology that might not exist when the project is approved is inherently difficult to estimate.
According to Thompson, the LRS-B program is going to avoid these problems. Because cost will be a major selling point for the new bomber, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gate put a cap of $55 billion on the program in 2010 in then-year dollars. The Air Force also says it will stick to using “off-the-shelf” technology. Those are smart moves in theory. In practice, they rarely work out. Even with the use of “mature” technology, it is difficult to glean lessons from past development programs for technological integration because new technologies present different challenges.
These problems are at the heart of schedule delays and cost overruns. The latter problem is particularly important to the question of political interference. The LRS-B is being sold on its relative affordability, hence the $55 billion cap Gates placed on the program. This is a common tactic. The military services present a low estimate for a program’s cost to get it started during tight budget periods. Once a program is started, it’s unlikely to be cancelled, even when delays occur and the price tag goes up, because vested interests have too much skin in the game. Just because the chance of cancellation goes down, however, does not mean it disappears. And when costs rise, the incentive for political intervention increases. Sincere budgetary concerns, opportunistic grandstanding, or both can throw a wrench in the works of a well-laid plan.
Political intervention into the Air Force program may come at a sensitive time for the LRS-B. The new bomber will go into production in the 2020s amid a “bow wave”—where a number of nuclear and conventional modernization programs will reach peak spending at the same time—for which the Pentagon has no feasible funding plan. Programs failing to perform as advertised will receive the most political scrutiny.
Does this mean the LRS-B program will fail? The answer depends on the definition of failure. If failure means inevitable cost overruns and schedule delays that waste taxpayer money, provoking complaints from politicians, then yes. But program failure really only occurs if the aircraft is not delivered, and cancellation is not likely to happen. Once the contract on the LRS-B is awarded, multiple constituencies will have a stake in seeing the project through to the end. It is better to embark on production with eyes open to the inevitability of waste and delay than to rely on Thompson’s rosy forecast.
Most importantly, the idea that “political interference” will be absent needs to be purged from the minds of anyone involved in development program. Acquisition is inherently political, with all the problems that come with that. Given that reality, and the other programs that need to be paid for simultaneously, the question that should be asked now is this: what programs are the military services willing to forgo in the future knowing that the cost of the LRS-B will rise?