The military acquisitions process is a complicated mess of requests, standards, and bidding. Based upon two of the most recent acquisitions for the US Air Force, even they aren’t particularly sure how it is all supposed to work.
The KC-X bidding process was a mess from the beginning that ultimately resulted in a flip-flop from the original decision in favor of Boeing’s offering. More recently, the Air Force cancelled their order for the Embraer Super Tucano after quite bit of political pressure, and a recurring theme of confusion.
The two parties involved this time, Embraer and Hawker Beechcraft, are once again a foreign manufacturer versus a domestic manufacturer. Based on that information alone it would be easy to say that the Air Force is simply catering to the hometown company.
My response to that is: Good.
The military is established for supporting the freedoms of a country to include protecting its businesses. If the military has the choice to support a domestic product over an import then I have absolutely no problem with that. That being said, I also have no problem with purchasing from a foreign company if it better meets the needs of the buyer.
I am not going to get into the good and the bad of each airframe as I don’t really have the information to do that having never flown in the Super Tucano, and having only limited time in the T-6 (which the AT-6 is based on). There is a really straightforward look at the pros and cons of each aircraft here.
Having had some time in the T-6 it is a great platform that I am sure would easily fulfill the needs of the Air Force. I also have little doubt that the Super Tucano would also do well. What is interesting to me about the whole process is the continued confusion in that exists.
The military has been acquiring weapons, tanks, and aircraft for a very, very long time. There was a time that we were able to acquire thousands of aircraft a year when we needed to. The entire process was completed in less time than it takes to write-up the request now.
I realize that old platforms were much simpler technologically, and could thus be manufactured much more quickly. That being said we have created a nightmare when it comes to acquiring anything. The Air Force has been the worst culprit of late, but I would guess that the other services are equally as guilty though less noticeable due to the lower ticket prices of their items.
Let’s take a look at a few of the most recent debacles.
First you had the F-22 program. It is hard to argue that it was, and probably still is, the most advanced fighter in the world. There is not another airframe that can really compete with it. But, after a long and expensive development, the program was cut very short at less than 200 aircraft, because the powers that be didn’t see the need, and the F-35 was coming online soon anyway, right?
The original development contract for the Joint Strike Fighter(F-35) was signed in 1996 so it wouldn’t be too unreasonable to expect a plane to be in service in 2009 when the decision to stop producing the F-22 was made. However, three years later we are just barely getting the first few aircraft into training squadrons which means even longer before they will be used in combat.
Of course you had the whole mess with developing a secondary engine for the plane before the primary one is even in service. Maybe in the long run an alternate engine would be valuable, but why not focus on getting the plane flying before we spend time and money on altering it.
Then you had the KC-X bidding which actually started in 2002 when the USAF planned to lease Boeing 767’s and then ultimately by them, but that was cancelled after corruption was discovered in the process. In 2008 the Airbus A330 tanker was selected, but was cancelled 4 months later after a protest from Boeing. Three months later the bidding process was reopened with the Boeing KC-46 being selected this time.
We appear to be following the same path with the cancellation of the Super Tucano opening the door for the AT-6. Whatever happens, it is clear that the entire system is massively flawed.
The biggest issue that I see is that we have a lot of people making decisions that have no real understanding of the needs of the military. We have senators and congressmen that are more concerned with bringing jobs to their states than they are with the quality of equipment we are giving to the people whose lives are on the line.
There is no fool-proof way to set up this process since there will always be people trying to manipulate the system. Even with that reality in mind, there has to be a way to make this process more efficient and effective.
The original request for a Light Air Support aircraft was made in 2009, and three years later we are still working on selecting a platform. That means that for three years a need has not been met that has probably cost people’s lives. The crazy thing is that these planes aren’t even for us, they are for the Afghan Air Force.
Regardless of who the planes are for, it is clear that the whole process is a mess and needs to be cleaned up in some way. How much money is wasted by the constant back and forth of all of these programs? In a time when budgets are being slimmed down, and we are kicking out military members who work hard, but we simply can’t afford, we owe it to everyone to use every dollar we have more efficiently.