Air Force promises more disciplined acquisitions

The Air Force will take a ruthlessly realistic approach to its acquisitions from now on, the service’s top uniformed officer said Tuesday.

At least for the time being, the days of pouring money into technology that’s not ready for prime time are over, and the Air Force will focus its declining procurement dollars on what it needs to meet its operational requirements, said Gen. Norton Schwartz at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md..

He repeated the themes the service’s civilian boss, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley, laid out at the Air Force event the day before: Namely, that each of the service’s core functions are important, and that the nation cannot afford to abandon any of the Air Force’s key roles.

But, Schwartz vowed the Air Force will become much more disciplined in how it uses its buying power amidst expectations of declining budgets. That, he said, means big spending on speculative technologies will have to go by the wayside.

“Although historically we’ve had more trade space to advance the state of the art, we now must be more calibrated in pushing the technological envelope,” he said. “We must be ruthlessly honest and disciplined when our operational requirements allow for more modest, less exquisite and higher confidence acquisition programs.”


Schwartz said the Air Force has laid the groundwork for the philosophy with its recent acquisition program for a new aerial refueling plane. Even though Boeing’s KC-46 tanker will be a vast improvement over the aging, previous generation of tankers, the Air Force awarded the contract on the basis of least cost, but technically acceptable.

Schwartz said both government and industry will have to think about large acquisitions differently from now on.

“We require straight talk from everybody,” he said. “Government must ensure stable requirements and reliable funding streams, while industry must bid realistically, and resist offering to sell more than what is operationally required. The success of the military and industry are now mutually related more than ever before. There is no trade space, time or patience to overpromise and under-deliver.”

That means the Air Force has to learn to buy only what it needs, not necessarily what it wants, Schwartz said. In a briefing with reporters after his Air Force Association speech, he said that’s a big change.

“It can be helpful in some instances to buy systems that can do a lot of different things for you. It can be a liability in others,” he said. “In a time of robust funding, we lost the ability to differentiate what’s essential and what’s nice to have. My sense is that we will have to be much crisper and more decisive about where that threshold lies.”

Schwartz said the Air Force will have to continue to perform all of its current missions unless there is a change to the national security strategy. Performing those missions with fewer dollars, he said, will mean the service must recalibrate where it allocates its forces.

And it will mean a less capable Air Force, at least in some areas.

“We’re talking about capacity,” he said. “We will have a core presence in each of our functions. But we will be less able to be in multiple places simultaneously, as well as our ability do to things in rapid succession. It’s physics. It will be a smaller Air Force. But it will be a high-quality, well-trained, highly-motivated Air Force. ”

The service already is smaller than it was 25 years ago. Its personnel bills are not: they are 60 percent higher, Schwartz said.

Health care and retirement costs, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates famously said, are “eating the department alive.”

To deal with some of those costs, the Defense Business Board, an advisory panel to Pentagon leadership, issued a preliminary report this summer, suggesting DoD convert its vested one-size-fits-all pension system into something more flexible that could benefit servicemembers who do not stay in the military for the full 20 years currently required.

Schwartz said the panel’s concerns about the fairness and viability of the current system were not entirely without merit. But he said the board’s private-sector approach to military retirement meant its solutions were “without credibility.”

President Obama has proposed an independent commission to suggest changes to the military retirement system. It would be modeled roughly on the military base realignment and closure process. The panel would issue recommendations; the president could say yes or no. Congress would then have to approve any proposed changes in an up-or-down vote.

Schwartz said that’s a better approach, depending on the panel’s exact composition. His concern, he said, is that the military not give up the recruiting and retention incentives that a generous retirement plan offers.

“We’re currently in a depressed economy,” he said. “My question will be what will be the dynamic in a vibrant economy, when we have to compete for the best talent in the country to do this work? My sense is that a presidential commission is in a much better position to have the breadth of expertise and the charter to do this work in a much more complete fashion than the Defense Business Board.”

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