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This article was Originally Published on Apr 19, 2006 in Volume: 5  Issue: 1

Fixing Space Acquisition

The acquisition challenges of national security space are critical from both a fiscal and operation context. The current system must be fixed, and there are solutions that will take us a long way toward that goal.

By Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.)

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The acquisition challenges of national security space are critical from both a fiscal and operational context. The successful use of space is essential for our national security and economic well-being. Future budgets for national security space are slated to increase by nearly 40 percent over the next four years. We cannot continue to tolerate continued cost overruns and schedule delays. The system must be fixed, and there are solutions that will take us a long way toward that goal.

The current situation exists because of the acquisition reforms during the ’90s, touting “faster, better, cheaper.” The mindset that pervaded that decade focused on anything but mission success, pursuing initiatives blindly without regard to the unintended consequences.

The problems and their solutions fit into four areas and are both procedural and cultural. The evils we seek to work out include: poor cost estimating and budgeting; lack of systems engineering expertise; lack of investment in acquisition professionals; and poor subcontractor management.

Poor cost estimating has plagued every new national security space program since the MILSTAR program. Previous reform attempts caused significant manpower reductions, shrinking the acquisition workforce by more than 50 percent and affecting the cost estimators much harder than that. The Air Force went so far as to get rid of the cost estimation duty-specialty for its personnel, subordinating it as an additional duty. The expertise and knowledge of these professionals were allowed to atrophy and die off.

As a result, neither industry nor the government had a system of checks and balances to maintain reality in or accountability for their cost estimates. Secondary consequences allowed the “manufacturing” of cost estimates for the purposes of winning an industry bid or, in the case of government, getting buy-in to meet larger service budgetary constraints. Programs were destined for significant overruns before they ever started.

The fix is to increase the number of cost estimators, rebuild and reward their skills and expertise, ensure their independence from the program offices and develop realistic budgets that incorporate the Defense Science Board recommendation that calls for budgeting at the 80 percent confidence level, rather than the current practice of budgeting to the 50 percent confidence level.

“Faster, better, cheaper” ruined government system engineering, while a lack of a national effort to celebrate math, sciences and the future use of space in our education system crimped the pipeline creating the nation’s engineers. A lack of vision for the future of space failed to inspire the nation’s youth to join its ranks. Further, acquisition reform reduced the number of government engineers and forced those remaining to depend on industry to do their jobs for them.

Again, as in the case of cost estimators, the numbers as well as the knowledge and expertise of our engineers diminished to dangerously low levels, allowing shoddy work and poor quality control. In order to achieve success, engineers faced steep learning curves and unrealistic workloads. They were set up for failure from the beginning.

The fix: Increase the number of engineers, build and reward their skills and expertise and continue to build and communicate a vision for the future of space, similar to President Bush’s plans for space exploration.

Acquisition reforms of the ’90s and the culture of the military services have resulted in an underinvestment in the Department of Defense acquisition professionals. The drastic downsizing of the acquisition workforce has had far-reaching impacts. In the Air Force, despite handling over 70 percent of the total Air Force budget and developing 100 percent of the weapons systems in use, acquisition professionals are often treated as second-class citizens. Promotion rates are generally lower than their peers in other career paths. Opportunity for command is often nonexistent. Training and career development for acquisition professionals is inadequate and out of date.

The fix: Make these professionals a priority. Ensure adequate promotion rates and command opportunities for the acquisition workforce, while addressing the shortcomings of the associated training and development of their careers. Establish a culture that values the contributions of these professionals.

Due to the consolidation of the defense industry, only three prime contractors remain to bid on national security space projects. Therefore, a prime contractor must manage anywhere from eight to 12 subcontractors. Unfortunately, sufficient accountability does not exist in today’s acquisition system. Subcontractors and suppliers have been allowed to grow careless without adequate and focused leadership from the prime contractors.

Countless horror stories exist about needless contamination of parts, frequent rework of subcomponents, nonexistent communications between and among systems developers and lack of manufacturing discipline. For example, the prime contractor of a current intelligence- collection program experienced four separate problems on the same part before seeking a new subcontractor.

The fix: Create accountability and exert leadership. The prime-sub relationship should be closely managed. Contracts should be awarded either to the concept with a manageable number of subcontractors or structured to provide sufficient incentives and penalties required to ensure proper performance. Government representation in the contractor factories must once again be instituted in order to ensure quality control and provide oversight.

Everett is chairman of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee.



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