We hear it often: It takes entirely too long to develop new military aircraft and other defense systems. We wistfully long for the bygone era when legendary outfits like Kelly Johnson’s Lockheed Skunk Works team actually went from proposal to production of a new aircraft concept, the XP-80 jet, in only 143 days.
The reality is that today’s military airplanes – actually complex platforms with advanced composite material airframes, sophisticated avionics, radars, combat systems, and weaponry, all with software requiring millions of lines of code – require much longer development times. Each aircraft demands an incredible amount of research, development and testing to ensure that all its component parts are sound and correctly integrated.
Compounding this natural increase in cycle times is our current budget austerity. Without adequate funding for over-the-horizon research, it’s harder to achieve breakthroughs in designing and developing our next generation of bombers, fighters and unmanned aircraft.
That said, the defense contracting community can do our part to help identify areas of efficiencies in the acquisition system to make the process of developing new defense platforms and systems much more streamlined and less costly.
One way to mitigate some of the pressure budget austerity is placing on our defense industrial base, while achieving greater value for the American taxpayer, is to encourage the Department of Defense to purchase commercial items. Commercial items provide the DOD with distinct military advantages including access to a wide array of technologies and products developed through industry investment, generally at a lower cost and with a quicker turn-around time than through traditional acquisition programs. Commercial purchases allow for faster insertion of technologies, lower life cycle costs and greater access to – and support from – the vast array of companies that make up the U.S. civil and military industrial base. They also help our small supplier companies by allowing them to consolidate operations into a single commercial/military enterprise, without having to waste resources setting up separate divisions or facilities required to fulfill government contracts.
Since the 1994 passage of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, Congress has directed DOD to buy commercial items and to use a simplified acquisition process when buying inherently commercial items. Unfortunately, the department’s acquisition practices have a long way to go before the act’s goals are met. While some progress has been made in simplifying and streamlining the government’s terms and conditions for commercial products and services, many contracts are still inconsistent with commercial practices. Contracts that could – and should – be categorized as commercial are instead being treated more as government-unique, with all the associated data requests and reporting provisions that can be prohibitive to commercial firms.
For example, DOD has erected major barriers with respect to intellectual property rights and cost/pricing data for firms trying to sell commercial items. Often DOD requires that a company relinquish any product-related patent rights and technical data – even those developed privately and independently of the government. Small and mid-sized businesses with limited resources have an especially difficult time protecting their rights when faced with intrusive government demands.
Restricting the use of commercial products and forcing vendors to relinquish their intellectual property deters companies from competing for defense business and denies our military prompt access to technologies that can speed new aircraft development.
We encourage DOD to take the following steps to encourage commercial practices that will help speed up product development cycles:
Maintain current commercial items definitions and fully implement the 1994 law as intended by Congress.
Reinforce respect for companies’ proprietary data and encourage commercial items purchases.
Consider commercial items early in new systems’ requirements definition process.
Include options for commercial items in program acquisition strategy plans.
Hold frequent discussions with industry to highlight the potential use of commercial items.
Work collaboratively with industry to define the right data framework to determine if prices for items are fair and reasonable.
If we are able to make significant progress on DOD’s commercial items agenda, the result will be more capable, affordable and more rapidly obtainable systems at a time when our military is in great need of all these characteristics.