Defense Industrialist

Using the LPTA criterion for the ENCORE III award is very bad idea.

Last Friday, the Professional Services Council (PSC) and the IT Alliance for the Public Sector (ITAPS) sent a letter to Defense Under Secretary Frank Kendall about a seemingly innocuous contracting matter. The two trade associations criticized the decision back in March by the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) to award its ENCORE III contract on a Lowest-Price, Technically Acceptable (LPTA) basis. Indeed, the PSC and the ITAPS have been complaining about this since the draft request for proposals was released almost a year ago. Former president of the PSC Stan Soloway even wrote an article in Government Executive last October assailing the choice. Their standing outrage is understandable. Taking lowest-price bids for complex, long-term contracts is not exactly the school solution in procurement.

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Buying new F-22s would be a very bad idea indeed.

Almost every defense-industrial publication this month has covered the language in the House version of the 2017 National Defense Authorization bill which directs the Pentagon “to conduct a comprehensive assessment and study of the costs associated with resuming production of F-22 aircraft.” We could take out pick of stories from Defense News, Aviation Week, Inside Defense, or Politico Pro. The actual issue perhaps should not have been so newsworthy. In a note to investors this week, Byron Callan of Capital Alpha called the restart idea “a fantasy.” On the numbers, I’ll call it just a very questionable idea.

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Culture still trumps law in the quest for military innovation.

On Tuesday evening, as part of the Council’s Captains of Industry series, our Lund Fellow Steve Grundman hosted a panel discussion amongst the CEOs of three Californian startup firms. Mylea Charvat's Savonix is building a “mobile, clinically valid, reliable, neuro-cognitive assessment and brain health platform.” John De Santis’s Hytrust is writing and deploying software that automatically monitors and secures computing infrastructure for “continuous compliance.” Gary Gysin's Liquid Robotics is “instrumenting the ocean” with its fleet of Wave Gliders, solar- and wave-powered robots that track everything from whales to submarines. All three want to help, but have had their frustrations with the government. And all three agreed that the government has a ways to go in convincing the startup community that it’s serious.

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DARPA’s new robotic frigate might seriously change naval warfare.

The prototype boat in DARPA's ASW Continuous Trail Unmanned Vessel (ACTUV) program, the Sea Hunter, is beginning sea trials. Sailing last week from Portland to San Diego, she’ll undergo two years of testing to determine whether an unmanned ship under “sparse human control” can trail Iranian, Russian, or Chinese diesel submarines exiting port. If she works, she’ll relieve the Navy’s very capable-but-expensive destroyers of that duty. She may also seriously change the way war at sea would be fought.

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Why Defense Bulls May Be Disappointed

Signs of spring abound. The forsythia is in bloom. The crack of opening day resounds. And the DoD Comptroller’s “Green Book” issues forth. The National Defense Budget Estimates for FY 2017, or Green Book, so-called by its seasonally-toned cover, is a 300-page volume of dense tables expressing to the nearest millionth dollar every obligation, authority, and outlay associated with the defense program each Administration submits to Congress in February. And yet, I confess to welcoming the tome’s publication no less than the morning skylark’s April twitter. Ah, spring!

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NATO doesn’t need more guns, money, or aircraft. It needs them where they’d count.

Two data sets stood out in my news flow this morning. Byron Callan, a member of the Atlantic Council and the senior defense investment analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, observed in note that global fixed-wing fighter and attack aircraft inventories have dropping for some time. Citing data from the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Military Balance, he noted that numbers worldwide have fallen 27 percent since 2003, from 20,845 to 15,280. Quantities are down more sharply for most European air forces, but the comparative counts for the five largest are revealing:

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The Third Offset must address NATO’s local numerical inferiorities.

As Inside Defense reported earlier this month, current events have the US Army questioning its organization, wondering if it’s otherwise destined to be perennially late to the game. The Russian Army, after all, has gotten rather good at showing up unannounced on short notice. It would be bad enough, as Sydney Freedberg wrote for our Art of Future Warfare project, to find “Tallinn Burning” with the Chinese simultaneously causing trouble. That’s because the really ugly anti-access problem, a former Pentagon official assured us here the other day, would be getting back into Tallinn or Riga or Vilnius after a Russian invasion. So, as we should want to avoid needing to eject dug-in Russian troops from NATO territory, what more could be done? Rushing more troops forward faster may not be as useful as devising labor-saving means of seriously slowing the enemy’s advance. And the technical advances required to do that are entirely the sort of thing we should expect from the Pentagon’s Third Offset initiative. 

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A new “island strategy” for reaction forces could make carrier and amphibious groups less essential.

On Monday, the American Hellenic Institute hosted a luncheon with Greek Defense Minister Panos Kammenos on the occasion of the rollout of a paper by Dan Gouré's of the Lexington Institute on “Souda Bay: NATO’s Military Gem in the Eastern Mediterranean”. I appreciated the free lunch, and some of the discussion that followed. Loren Thompson reminded his colleague, with a useful softball question, to talk about how the base would be a good location for half a dozen V-22 Ospreys and a pair of KC-130 Hercules tanker-transports. That’s the composition of the composite air squadron within a handful of those new model, shore-based air-ground task forces of the US Marine Corps. Benghazi, he noted, is easily within range and an hour’s flying time of the NATO airfield at Souda Bay. Not much further away are Egypt, Israel, Lebanon, and Syria—if anyone were keen to go there kinetically. To this end, Crete would be a seriously useful island. But if so, then so would be Mallorca, Sardinia, Sicily, and Cyprus. And if those places in the middle of the midland sea are so useful, what does that say about the importance and future composition of naval forces?

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The Pentagon is making progress with better-faster-cheaper, just on a small scale.

In January 2015 at the Atlantic Council, Air Force Secretary Debbie James delivered an address on “Bending the Cost Curve,” emphasizing that her department needed to get off the path towards Augustinian singularity. The initiative she outlined had three parts: enhancing communication with industry, expanding competition, and accelerating development processes. The secretary specifically wanted to look for opportunities where small adaptations and innovations could yield big improvements in capabilities. So how has Defense—and not just the Air Force—been doing lately? For a challenging reform effort, it’s a reasonable report card, but we have a long way to go.

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Mac Thornberry’s “Acquisition Agility” bill is a good start—but just a start—towards greater experimentation and prototyping.

Congressman Mac Thornberry’s “Acquisition Agility” bill is 32 pages long, but its intent can probably be summarized thus. Thornberry (R-TX) fundamentally wants the military departments, not the centralized bureaucracy of OSD AT&L, in charge of the day-to-day business of military procurement. Specifically, he wants the Army, Navy, and Air Force Departments to hire companies with commercial interests to prototype new components for current platforms. He’s offering to safeguard those companies’ intellectual properties, as long as they’re willing to work within modular and open architectures. He wants new wholly new programs begun only with mature technologies, and for relatively short-term needs, with the modularity and openness bought as hedges for long-term upgradability. This last point will be hard to enforce for big platforms, but the rest of Thornberry’s proposals might bring forth components and smaller systems faster, which is at least a good start.

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