Will the Army Make An "F-35" Mistake?

February 5, 2019 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: F-35MilitaryTechnologyWorldArmy

Will the Army Make An "F-35" Mistake?

A new report warns that the Army could purchase weapons that sound good in theory but simply aren't ready for prime time. 

The U.S. Army is buying new weapons without being certain if they will work, warns a new Government Accountability Office report.

GAO examined Army Futures Command, the new organization charged with developing new equipment as the Army seeks to modernize its Cold War and War on Terror arsenal into weapons capable of taking on sophisticated Russian and Chinese forces. The Army has named six categories as top-priority items: long-range missiles and artillery, next-generation armored vehicles, new helicopters, improved data networks, air and missile defense, and better gear for individual soldiers.

Sounding a note of bureaucratic exasperation, GAO says it has long warned the Army that buying equipment before it is fully developed is a bad idea. “Under the modernization effort, the Army plans to begin weapon systems development at a lower level of maturity than what is recommended by leading practices,” auditors warned. “GAO has raised concerns about this type of practice for almost two decades for other Army acquisitions, because proceeding into weapon systems development at earlier stages of technology maturity raises the risk that the resulting systems could experience cost increases, delivery delays, or failure to deliver desired capabilities. Taking this approach for acquisitions under the modernization effort raises similar concerns for the Army's six prioritized capability needs.”

GAO calls Army Futures Command “the most significant institutional change to the Army since it reorganized in 1973 in the wake of the Vietnam War.” It also praised the Army for using a cross-functional team approach, in which experts from across the Army in various fields, such as technology and acquisitions, combine their talents on the six priority Army projects.

However, the Army is making a mistake by buying equipment that hasn’t been tested in the field, or at least in a realistic laboratory environment, GAO warns. “As an example, the Soldier Lethality cross-functional team began maturing technology for the next generation squad automatic rifle to this level of maturity to prepare it for the transition to product development, scheduled for the end of fiscal year 2019,” the agency said. “Under leading practices that we identified, prototypes should be demonstrated in an operational or realistic environment—not simply in a relevant environment—prior to starting system development to ensure that they work as intended for the end-user.”

Many of GAO’s recommendations involve using good management practices, such as Army Futures Command actually benefiting from lessons learned by the cross-functional teams. “The cross-functional team pilots have demonstrated some initial successes in shortening the requirements development process—and, more generally, in collaborating across the Army—but it is not clear what steps the Army Futures Command plans to take to incorporate the experience and expertise of these teams in applying leading practices and thereby sustain these benefits. Further, the Army lacks a formal plan to identify and incorporate lessons learned from the cross-functional teams as Army Futures Command becomes fully operational and could thereby miss an opportunity to leverage the experience of these teams on past practices that worked well and those that did not.”

Significantly, GAO auditors sounded skeptical about whether the Army’s current push for modernization will continue. “For example, a senior military official in Army Futures Command told us that they expect commanders of components will rotate every 4 years. Therefore, because this modernization effort is expected to span a decade or longer, continued support from current and future senior Army officials, such as the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of the Army, will be essential to ensure the success of the new command into the future.”

Ironically, the most notorious example of premature acquisition belongs to the Air Force and Navy rather than the Army: the F-35 stealth fighter, the most expensive weapons project in American history, was purchased before the aircraft was technologically mature. The theory was that the bugs could be worked out while the aircraft went into production and into service, an idea that many would now say was a costly mistake.

Michael Peck is a contributing writer for the National Interest. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.