When U.S. Army leaders decided they needed an upgraded version of the M-1 Abrams tank, they wanted to get it without enduring what they consider to be a cumbersome formal acquisition process.
Any program of this scale would ordinarily be classified as a Major Defense Acquisition Program and be subject to the oversight reviews and regulations that status entails. To avoid this, Army leaders claimed a major modernization effort to a weapon central to their very identity was a mere design tweak, and managed the project through the far less rigorous Engineering Change Proposal process.
This is a problem. The MDAP process may be cumbersome, but its intended purpose is to ensure the Pentagon properly evaluates its needs and then enters into programs that will properly meet them. It is also meant to exert the kind of pressure necessary to keep costs under control.
While the system is indisputably flawed — the F-35 is an MDAP — the services should not be permitted to simply ignore the laws. Doing so will almost certainly result in weapons of dubious combat value and more cost overruns.
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In performing such a maneuver to avoid the toughest of the acquisitions process, the Army is hardly alone. All of the services are increasingly resorting to similar schemes for other high-profile programs.
The danger to the taxpayers, to say nothing of the men and women who will have to take these systems into combat one day, is that these complex and expensive weapons systems aren’t subjected the kind of outside scrutiny necessary to ensure the services are purchasing suitable and effective equipment.
Hardly a year goes by without some effort to modernize the Pentagon’s weapons buying process. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, succeeded in pushing into law a provision to split the Pentagon’s Office of Acquisition, Technology & Logistics into at least two offices.
The long-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee believes this will allow the separate undersecretaries to focus more on their particular offices. The new office of Research and Engineering will focus on innovation while the Acquisition and Sustainment office deals with basic business functions associated with buying and maintaining new weapons.
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican, has introduced legislation meant to streamline the process for the past three years. The latest version would allow the services to purchase more items through commercial marketplaces.
Previous similar efforts, such as when the Pentagon attempted to change the definition of commercial items to avoid the competitive bidding process, proved problematic. Earlier efforts were geared towards improving program business models and reducing the process’s reports and paperwork.
Congress also effectively outsourced acquisition reform to the defense industry when it created the “Section 809 Panel” as part of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to make recommendations to streamline the way the Pentagon buys weapons. This panel is comprised of several members with deep ties to the defense industry and is the subject of a concerted lobbying effort by the contracting community.
The effectiveness of such efforts is not yet clear, but that might not matter. The usual result of most such efforts is an even more sluggish process — it is a rare problem that can’t be made worse with the addition of more bureaucracy.
From the perspective of the Pentagon, the defense contractors, and their allies on Capitol Hill, there are advantages in procuring weapon systems through means other than the formal acquisition process. The acquisition process is so complicated and involved that the Department of Defense created the Defense Acquisition University in 1991 to educate personnel on navigating various aspects of the process. A full explanation of the process would fill volumes, but even the basics provide a glimpse into the complexity of the process.
A Major Defense Acquisition Program goes through three separate phases. At the end of each phase, a program goes through a review process to determine whether it has met the criteria to move onto the next phase. These transitions are called “milestones.”
That means we will be spending $22 million to upgrade a $6 million vehicle.
A project begins when the services identify a new military need, or what is known as a capability. This is done through the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System. This process figures out whether a new weapon system is actually needed to fill the perceived capability gap or if a change in tactics or some other non-material solution can get the job done.
This work is reviewed by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council. If they determine a new weapon system is needed, then it goes through the Material Solution Analysis Phase.
A program has to achieve 40 milestone requirements just to pass Milestone A into the second major phase of a program, the Technology Maturation & Risk Reduction Phase. These 40 requirements includes conducting an analysis of alternatives; an independent cost estimateand developing a test-and-evaluation master plan, which is essential to establish clear testing benchmarks to evaluate how the new weapon system performs in combat.
While plenty of redundancy exists within the process, it is meant to protect the interests of both the troops and taxpayers. The Government Accountability Office has noted the importance of following through with these steps as part of a knowledge-based process. If the services don’t do so, they create situations where programs “carry technology, design and production risks into subsequent phases of the acquisition process that could result in cost growth or schedule delays.”
Ideally, multiple contractors will build prototypes that will then be tested as part of a competition to see which design performs the intended mission better. The most successful programs begin this way, with the Lightweight Fighter Program and the A-X Program being the most notable examples.
The awarding of a contract for the winning design marks Milestone B, and the program passes into the Engineering & Manufacturing Development Phase. The prime and sub-contractors then finalize the development of the system and begin manufacturing enough production-representative goods to complete the Initial Operational Test & Evaluation process.
The successful completion of the realistic combat and live-fire testing phase marks Milestone C, and the program proceeds to full-scale production and deployment to the troops.
Throughout this process, there are numerous review and decision points. This includes a review by the Defense Acquisition Board, which is made up of the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretaries of the Military Departments, four undersecretaries of defense, the Director of Operational Test & Evaluation and others.
The Army’s new tank
The Army commissioned General Dynamics to design an upgraded version of the M-1A2 Abrams tank in 2015. The first of what is expected to be 1,500 upgraded versions of the Army’s Abrams tanks rolled off the assembly line at the Lima, Ohio, factory on Oct. 4, 2017.
The choice of contractors for the project was hardly a surprise as the Abrams tank is a General Dynamics product. That is not to suggest that another contractor could not perform the work. Other contractors such as BAE Systems also build armored vehicles and their component systems. By designating the project as an Engineering Change Proposal, however, the Army had little need to open it to a competitive bidding process as “most ECPs occur in a sole source environment.”
To the casual observer, the Army’s newest tank looks very much like the existing tanks. The M1A2 SEPv3 is still essentially an Abrams tank on the outside. However, the vehicle is quite different on the inside. It sports a new suite of communications gear called the Joint Tactical Radio System, which is supposed to fully integrate the vehicle into the Army’s command and control network.
To provide the necessary electricity to power all of the new electronics and conserve fuel in situations where the crew does not need to run the gas-turbine engine, an improved generator has been added inside the hull.
The tank uses the same M256 smooth-bore cannon as the existing M-1A1 tanks, but the breach in this variant has been modified to use the Ammunition DataLink to be compatible with the advanced multi-purpose round. This allows the tank’s gunner to send a signal to the round right before it is fired, setting its detonation mode to one of three different settings. It can detonate on impact, detonate on a delay for obstacle reduction, or airburst. This single round replaces four existing rounds, reducing the logistical burden of the armored forces, which is always a great concern.