Oct 25 2009

Op-ed: 'Check-the-box gamesmanship'

By SEN. RICHARD SHELBY
Special to the Press-Register

The much-maligned Department of Defense acquisition process has taken a number of significant hits over the years.

Regrettably, as a result of numerous protests and delays, it has become apparent that the Department of Defense is less interested in procuring the best possible equipment for our warfighters and more interested in simply ensuring that a baseline standard is met using a lowest-cost acquisition process that seeks to minimize the possibility of successful protests.

This type of "check-the-box gamesmanship" should be utilized in procuring pencils and stationery, not planes and ships.

Two examples of this process in action are the Air Force's ongoing aerial refueling tanker saga and the continued troubles with the Navy's littoral combat ship program.

With regard to the tanker program, after review of the draft request for proposals, which sets the parameters for the new tanker acquisition, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is not structured as a "best value" competition that would ensure our warfighter receives the best plane.

Rather, it is structured as a "lowest price, technically acceptable" competition that does one thing and one thing only: reduce the likelihood that our warfighters will receive the most capable plane on the market.

In other words, it is a cost shootout where the cheapest bid wins, regardless of capabilities offered.

One would think that the Air Force's top priority would be to ensure that our men and women in uniform have the best, most capable equipment. Clearly, that is not the case.

A lowest-price, technically acceptable procurement process focuses almost exclusively on cost rather than advanced or additional capabilities available on the aircraft. This means that price is more important than quality and that performance is not a critical factor.

Additional capabilities — technology that could help save the lives of our men and women in uniform — are not a key consideration in the decision.

The Northrop Grumman-EADS tanker air frame has significantly greater capability than the Boeing offering, and provides a much better value to the military. It is bigger. It can carry more fuel and cargo. It can fly farther.

The Northrop tanker provides more "bang for the buck." Therefore, it does not make sense to structure a competition where none of these previous factors is a major consideration.

Especially disconcerting is that the requirements the Air Force is specifying in the upcoming tanker competition differ markedly from those of the previous tanker competition.

How could its requirements and priorities change so drastically in one year? The answer: The Department of Defense and the Air Force want to avoid a protest.

Thus, once again politics has trumped the welfare of our warfighters.

Unfortunately, a similar type of procurement process appears to be taking shape for next year's littoral combat ship competition.

On Sept. 16, the Navy announced cancellation of the current acquisition strategy for the LCS and is instead focusing on a new buying strategy that once again comes at the expense of additional capability.

The Navy has stated its intention to run this competition based solely on price.

The General Dynamics/Austal variant of LCS has far greater capability than its competitor. It is a bigger ship that carries more and has greater speed using significantly less fuel. It is more maneuverable and has a bigger flight deck, more weapons modules and greater range.

Yet the Navy has structured the competition to buy the cheapest ship without consideration of any other factor. Once again, the structure of a Department of Defense acquisition process appears detrimental to the ones who rely on this equipment the most, our warfighters.

If this procurement process is ultimately utilized for the LCS competition, it is abundantly clear that the cheaper, less-capable offering will win the day.

All of this is because our Department of Defense is more concerned about the political ramifications of the losing bidder than about making certain that our armed forces are as capably equipped as possible.

As the tanker and LCS procurement processes move forward, the Air Force and the Navy need to structure their respective bid solicitations to provide maximum benefit for our warfighters.

In approaching the acquisition of crucial and technologically advanced military equipment, we must be ever mindful of the adage: You get what you pay for.