February 10, 2015
Rescuing Pilots, Selling Airplanes
By James Hasik
The UAE’s demand for rescue V-22s is a marketing triumph that recalls a procurement failure.
The United Arab Emirates were in, bombing northern Iraq and western Syria with their widely praised Air Force, and allowing Major Mariam al Mansouri to strike a small blow for Arab women’s rights along the way. But then the Emirates were out, after the savages known as ISIS captured, and later murdered, a downed Jordanian pilot. What happened next is remarkable. The Emirati government demanded that American V-22 tilt-rotors be moved closer to the battlefields to stand by for rescue missions. That demand is now being answered: V-22s are going to Kurdistan, and UAEAF F-16s are in Jordan to join Operation Moaz the Martyr. But the V-22 is not the US Air Force’s primary rescue aircraft, and that stark difference says a lot about the power of a basic marketing message in armaments sales, and the ongoing failure of the Pentagon’s approach to procurement.
A year ago, I commented (“Best Value Is a No-Brainer”) on an editorial on this topic in the New York Times by Jacques Gansler, a former Pentagon under secretary for procurement. Gansler called out for particular scorn two recent procurement fiascos that employed the now widely despised lowest-price, technically-acceptable (LPTA) approach to contracting. One of these was the USAF’s Combat Rescue Helicopter (CRH) “competitions”. In its request for proposals (RFP), the USAF accorded no credit to potential suppliers for exceeding merely acceptable requirements. So, in bringing the cheapest helicopter, Sikorsky (with partner Lockheed) wound up the contracts as the only bidder. (Sikorsky managed the same with the similarly concocted contest for a new presidential helicopter.) From the government’s standpoint, it's hard to know whether you’re getting the best value for your money when you don’t know how much lower the price would have gone with a little competition.
The US Air Force couldn’t seem to figure that out, writing an incredibly complicated solicitation that, in the end, could only have produced one result. Perhaps the bureaucrats in Materiel Command just didn't care, though clearly the UAE Air Force now cares rather more. Perhaps the Air Force's leadership figures that AFSOC’s CV-22 crews and the USMC’s MV-22 crews will handle the occasional long-range rescue problems, even if they don’t train as much for them. If so, one wonders what the point of the CRH exercise was. Whatever the case, Bell and Boeing should now be pleased. They’re building an airplane that sells itself. Flies farther; flies faster. If the buyers are working outside the DoDI 5000, that’s all they need to know. But if you’re a buyer working inside the DoDI 5000, good luck getting the kit you need.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.