Military Capabilities

USAF strategy seeks more 'agile' acquisitions

31 July 2014
The JSTARS recapitalisation effort could be one of the first new USAF programmes to be built under a new, more 'agile' acquisition system. Source: Northrop Grumman

Key Points

  • USAF wants to build 'modularity' and 'open architectures' into new equipment development efforts from their inception.
  • The new Joint STARS and combat aircraft trainer programmes will likely be test cases for the new methodology.

The US Air Force (USAF) wants to create a more "agile" acquisition system better suited to the rapidly shifting technology landscape, among other changes meant to help the service address looming budget constraints, top officials said on 30 July.

Citing a new 30-year strategy document unveiled at a Pentagon press briefing, the service's senior civilian said she wants programme managers to build "modularity" and "open architectures" into new equipment development efforts from the start in order to allow for insertions and deletions as technology evolves over time.

"Our best opportunities are with the new programmes," said USAF Secretary Deborah Lee James. "The old programmes … are what they are, and we have to do the best we can with the existing architectures."

When new programmes are initiated, USAF acquisition officials must "build in modularity and open architectures … to be able to plug in different kinds of technology as technology changes," she added.

James named a planned replacement effort for the Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (Joint STARS) and USAF's new combat aircraft trainer (T-X) as examples of two programmes that she wants built using the new acquisition paradigm.

However, USAF's top uniformed official, chief of staff General Mark Welsh, noted that new technologies might even be inserted into old platforms when there is a business case for such a move. For example, he said, if the Adaptive Engine Technology Demonstrator (AETD) effort - for which USAF requested USD5 billion in its most recent budget - yields a sixth-generation engine quickly, the technology could be incorporated into all the USAF's fleets.

"If AETD proves that you can build systems that save you between anywhere between 30-40% of fuel costs, then we should be building into every fleet decision points for implementing that new technology in engine competitions," he said. "Because it will pay for itself very quickly."

Both officials warned that USAF must prepare for sweeping organisational changes as it budget decreases and technology advances ever more rapidly.

"This call to the future is a roadmap to help guide our long-term planning efforts and to help us make smart money and policy choices," James said in reference to the new strategy.

Gen Welsh noted that the air force's USD137 billion budget request for Fiscal Year 2015 (FY 2015) is USD20 billion less than its 2012 proposal. Under the FY 2015 budget plan, the service will go from 330,000 personnel to 307,000 in five years. It also wants to retire ageing aircraft in favour of newer, more survivable technology, but those efforts have become politicised in Congress.

While the 20-year plan warns against "huge, long-term projects," Gen Welsh said the service still wants to protect the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter, the Boeing KC-46A Pegasus aerial refuelling tanker, and the new Long-Range Strike-Bomber (LRS-B) as its top acquisition priorities.

The report also dampened recent enthusiasm over unmanned systems. "It's not like they're taking over" from humans entirely, said Gen Walsh. "There's a sensor we haven't figured out how to replicate yet, and that's the one that sits on your shoulders."

Related article: Pentagon budget 2015: USAF seeks funds for JSTARS, T-X recap

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