Navy looks to overhaul acquisition processes for aviation systems

Thursday - 4/10/2014, 4:55am EDT

Jared Serbu reports.

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The leader of the Naval Air Systems Command says his service needs to make significant changes to the way it acquires planes, helicopters and other aviation systems; otherwise, it faces a future in which overhead costs swamp its ability to bring new technology on board.

Among the problems Vice Adm. David Dunaway, NAVAIR's commander, sees is a "stranglehold" of proprietary systems that add cost without necessarily adding value.

He said the changes he's pursing include a move to open architectures and modular systems, a system-of- systems viewpoint to the way the Navy buys new technology and an end to the practice of outsourcing the responsibility to integrate complex systems.

"We've been cash-strapped for a long time, and the way we've dealt with it so far is to cancel aircraft that we'd planned to buy in the future. We've taken out those tails to fund cost overruns, or readiness when we need it. The dirty little secret is that our future of tails is running out," he said. "We are largely recapitalized in naval aviation, and we don't have those tails to go to when we need to find money. We are going to have to do things differently."

One way to do things differently, Dunaway said, is to stop acquiring new military technology items without first thinking through how they'll fit in with every other piece of equipment the Navy already has fielded.

To tackle that problem, he said NAVAIR is creating a "horizontal" approach to engineering to make sure it treats every new system it buys as part of an integrated warfighting capability.

"The weapons system is the entire air wing. We don't fight as individuals, we fight as a package, and the package has got to fight together," he said. "Money comes to us vertically through individual stovepiped programs, and then warfighters have to put those individual platforms, networks and sensors together into a capability. But there's absolutely no reason we can't engineer things in an integrated fashion in the first place. Nothing is more frustrating to them than to get a brand new piece of equipment that has a great capability, but doesn't connect to the network, doesn't connect to the tracking and targeting systems, and now they have to do miraculous things to try to pull it all together."

Take back the lead system integrator role

Dunaway said it's also time for NAVAIR to take over the responsibility to serve as its own lead systems integrator for many of the acquisition portfolios it manages — a function he says has too often been contracted out to private firms, and something, he said, the Navy needs to do itself if it's going to meet his goal of integrated engineering.

"It is essential, in my view, that the government take the most important technical standards and authorities and pull them back and control them," he said. "Then, industry can plug into a common standard, and that goes to things like open architecture, modularity, plug-and-play. We've all talked about these things for a long time, and it might have been a bridge too far in the past. But the technology is here today. In NAVAIR, we've integrated more than 20 [electro-optical/infrared] sensors in the past 10 years in a point-to-point, proprietary fashion. That's just crazy. It's money that's just lost to the system. It should be an open architecture with a minor integration effort for every new sensor."

Dunaway said NAVAIR doesn't intend to take over responsibility for every technology standard, because there's a careful balance between the government assuming its proper role in that arena and inadvertently driving out private sector innovation.

He said he will work with industry to find that balance point, but he believes the government-as-systems- integrator approach will ultimately make life easier for vendors as well.

"We have ceded standards to industry that are hard for them to manage," he said. "If you look at a combat system on a ship or an air wing, you've got a Northrop Grumman E-2, a Boeing F-18, a Lockheed F-35, and all of these airplanes have to come together in order to create an integrated fire control solution. That's complicated, and it's something the United States government needs to take in as a standard and control. And I think in the long run, our industry partners are going to be relieved that they're not trying to work across these proprietary boundaries, because it's just plain awkward and difficult. It's going to affect some companies' revenue streams, and I want to be careful about that, but some of this has got to change or else we're not going to be able to afford our future."