The Pentagon’s Top Weapons Buyer Wrote This Headline: `Acquisition Malpractice’

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Frank Kendall shined a spotlight Monday into the F-35 program – the biggest weapons buy in the history of the world — and didn’t like what he saw. The Pentagon’s top weapons buyer said:

This will make a headline if I say it, but I’m going to say it anyway: putting the F-35 into production years before the first test flight was acquisition malpractice. It should not have been done, OK? But we did it, OK?

Well, actually, it’s not OK. There was no threat warranting such a rush into production. The lone threats were aging F-15s, F-16s and AV-8Bs – all of which should have been improved until the F-35 was ready for prime time.

The Pentagon plans on spending $380 billion for 2,500 of the planes, to be flown by the Air Force, Marines and Navy. Kendall elaborated on the troubles concurrency – designing and building something at the same time – have caused the Lockheed program:

The optimistic predictions, when we started the production of the F-35, that we now had good enough design tools and good enough simulations and modeling that we wouldn’t have to worry about finding problems in test was wrong. And now we’re paying the price for being wrong about that, OK?

So we’re finding problems with all three of the variants that are the types of things that are historically in a state-of-the-art, next-generation, fighter aircraft you’re going to find, OK, where our design tools are not perfect and we didn’t model everything as precisely as we thought we had.

The hardest part of any acquisition program is the transition from development to production, OK? And that’s where the concurrency arguments come in. You know, when should you start? And I think there’s been a tendency to start too early in some cases. And the F-35 is probably an extreme example of that.

Kendall went on and on in his remarks about how the acquisition system has been broken ever since he arrived at the Pentagon more than 30 years ago.

“The same problems existed when we were there in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s that are there today,” the acting under secretary of acquisition, technology and logistics told a gathering at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I have asked the question a couple of times, you know, `Are we doing better or worse than we were 10 years ago?’ And it’s hard to even get an answer to that question.”

Well, as any parent knows, if you can’t get the question answered, it means the real answer isn’t the one you want to hear. The fundamental problem is one of a culture of bureaucratic bloat that is more dedicated to preserving military fiefdoms and missions, rather than ensuring the taxpayers and troops get the biggest bang for their bucks and blood.

Kendall recalled what a fighter pilot told him once. “He brought up the fact that at the end of the year, every year when he was in the unit, they would go out and fly around at the end of the [budgetary] year in September to burn up fuel,” Kendall said. “The reason they were doing it was obvious, right? The reason they were doing it is because they would get their budget cut the next year if they didn’t burn up their fuel and spend their money. That’s not the kind of culture we want, OK?”

Changing that culture is vital, Kendall said. “If we don’t do that,” he said, “we’re going to have huge problems forever.”

Think of that description as a new kind of Pentagon triad. Instead of the strategic nuclear tried, we might want to call it Kendall’s procurement triad: Huge. Problems. Forever.