All governments have the responsibility to procure goods and services to benefit the public they serve. However, when acquisitions fail, that same public pays the price. In this article we will examine several specific examples of failed acquisition strategies that ended up being costly for the government and delivered only schedule slip and cost overruns to the war fighter. These examples include flawed acquisitions by the US Airforce, the European Union, Saudi Arabia and others.
The US Airforce:
The Airforce has been involved in several acquisition strategies that ended up being costly and ineffective. Two of the most notable examples are the Distributed Common Ground System (DCGS) and the Global Hawk program.
DCGS was a project launched by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to collect and analyze intelligence from various sources. The Airforce invested over $10 billion in this project, but it failed to deliver the needed mission capability and effects. Despite the significant investment, the system was unable to meet all expected needs of the end-users, leading to a loss of credibility and diminished capability. The program is currently undergoing a two phase “keep it running” and subsequent modernization effort to prepare the system for the fight in 2030.
The Global Hawk program was another significant investment by the Airforce, costing over $18 billion. The unmanned aircraft was designed to perform military reconnaissance and electronic warfare operations, but the system had numerous technical problems that rendered it ineffective in contested air space and combat situations. The Airforce’s failure to deliver a reliable and effective system led to significant criticism and the development of a sun-set plan for the fielded fleet.
The European Union invested $1.7 billion in a joint venture with a large US prime contractor to develop a surveillance system based on the Global Hawk called the Euro Hawk. The system was intended to enhance the European Union’s intelligence capabilities, but it failed to meet requirements. There was no concept of operations for the intelligence mission integration into the larger eco-system, leading to a lack of clarity for program goals and effectiveness in combat operations.
The Saudi Arabian government purchased F-15 Strike Eagles from the United States for over $29 billion, but the acquisition did not account for a proper cybersecurity strategy. The lack of a cybersecurity strategy left the jets vulnerable to cyber-attacks, leading to a significant risk to national security. The acquisition strategy failed to account for the importance of cybersecurity in modern warfare, leading to significant costs and risks. A separate Foreign Military Sales (FMS) deal was developed to plug the gap.
Airforce Cloud Migration:
The Airforce spent $1 billion on a cloud migration project with Amazon in a winner take all style contract. The Airforce chose a winner before fully considering all acquisition strategies, resulting in a protest and multi-year schedule slip. The failure to choose the right acquisition strategy led to a costly and time-consuming process to fix the issues, further delaying the project’s completion. Two years later, the Pentagon awarded a $9B Cloud Contract to Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Oracle.
Command and Control for Ground Vehicles:
A Middle East nation attempted to design and develop a command and control (C2) system for land combat vehicles. But they were required, for political reasons, to use existing European C2 software as a baseline. The software could not be sufficiently tailored, the project’s leadership lacked systems engineering experience and had never built a major system of any kind, the multinational team of expats was dysfunctional and the entire efforts, worth approximately USD $1B, was cancelled.
UK Phoenix Unmanned Air Vehicle System
The British government, for reasons of national pride, decided to design and build a drone surveillance system for the Army. While US Predators were readily available, the UK government chose a clean-sheet design. The team generated a poor aerodynamic design and chose an inexperienced prime contractor to build it. The aircraft engine they chose was unsuitable for the desert operating environment of Iraq. The truck they chose for the rail-launch system would not fit in Royal Air Force C-130 transport aircraft nor could it travel through the Chunnel to the European mainland for rail transport. And the development took so long (11 years to reach IOC) that the system was obsolete when fielded. Worse yet, the British Army commanders often directed that the few aircraft that were fielded be flown so long as to as to have insufficient fuel to return to base and the aircraft were lost. A poor acquisition (make-or-buy) decision, compounded by an incomplete design team and ill-advised selections of key components, led to a huge waste of the British public’s tax money, an embarrassment for the UK government, and nothing for the war-fighter.
The examples outlined in this article demonstrate that acquisition strategies, concepts of operation (CONOPS), test plans, deployment plans, logistics concepts and carefully crafted capability planning are essential to successful project execution and on schedule delivery of capability effects. Taxpayers end up paying the price when projects fail to deliver the intended results. Even advanced nations like the US and the UK are not immune to planning and execution challenges. All governments can learn from these failures and improve their acquisition strategies and project planning, to ensure that public money is spent wisely and that defense forces are provided with the equipment they must have, when and where needed.
Done properly, the result is an avoidance of costly mistakes and the provision of faster, better equipment and services. The importance of proper planning and execution cannot be overstated, and all governments should take this into account when selecting and tailoring acquisition strategies for major capability procurements.
David Tashji (PWK Advisers)
Mack McKinney (Smooth Projects)
AUTHORS NOTE: The authors assert that first-hand experience and expertise can make any professional decision better. Ultimately, we believe experience creates expertise. All references are with respect to on on-the-ground experiences in Berlin, Cairo, Riyadh, the United States and elsewhere.