The U.S. Navy's New Submarine Hunter Is a Model for Success

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On time, on budget, passed operational testing for effectiveness and suitability, and now on initial deployment in Japan, the Boeing P-8A Poseidon aircraft is a replacement for the Navy’s fleet of P-3 Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft introduced in 1962. This $32 billion program is a real success for the Navy and the country.

The program is being executed as planned in 2004 with about 100 aircraft to follow initial production aircraft now being deployed.  Given the recent acquisition record, there may be no similar successes in the foreseeable future.

Introduction of the P-8A’s advanced anti-submarine, anti-surface ship and surveillance capabilities is particularly timely.

Regarding anti-submarine warfare, there are many new submarines now entering navies. In particular, the Chinese Navy has embarked on a major submarine building program, including development of submarines carrying strategic nuclear missiles. 

Moreover, China is one of several countries developing a new type of air-independent submarines using fuel cells as the means of propulsion.  They are reported to be far quieter than older conventional submarines and, therefore, less detectable. The P-8A includes new active sonobuoy systems allowing the aircraft systems to “ping” against a suspected threat as well as listen passively. Combined with the aircraft endurance and airborne refueling capability, these systems will allow long-term surveillance not possible with current aircraft. The P-8A will help to establish a new standard of airborne capability complementing already formidable U.S. submarine and surface ship capabilities (though the U.S. still needs a real anti- submarine frigate).

The P-8A supports anti-surface ship action, carrying radar for detection and Harpoon anti-ship missiles for engagement if necessary.  Pirates and other renegades have to fear the air and there is no hiding on the ocean.

Electronic surveillance capabilities round out the situational awareness for the crew and associated units.

In the political-military sense, the timing of the first deployment to Japan is significant. It is a clear indication that the United States plans to stay involved in preserving international freedom of the seas in East Asia and will not defer to Chinese attempts to expand ocean control beyond internationally recognized limits.

How was this success made possible?  There are several key factors.

First, risk was controlled by basing the aircraft on the commercial Boeing 737. The airplane was modified to include weapon and sonobuoy launch capabilities. Airframe was strengthened to support military tactics. Mission equipment was evolutionary from current equipment.

Second, the program manager was allowed control over specifications causing undue costs or systems that demonstrated inadequate performance. Navy management made it clear that cost control was essential.

Third, aircraft production was integrated into the 737 production line, providing commercial pressure to control cost.

Fourth and most important, the program manager did not change during the development process, assuring constancy of purpose for the duration.

In an unusual move, Navy promoted the program manager, rather than thanking him and offering retirement.

All of these conditions are not possible in other programs, but they provide important conditions for success.

Currently the Defense Department has an aggregate of over $400 billion of cost growth in the major systems category. These lessons of risk control, specifications management, performance proof, cost control and managerial continuity should be applied to all defense programs.  It is time for action, rather than the current rationalization that all programs grow.

The P-8A program proves this attitude is dead wrong.  Congratulations to all who participated in the Navy, in Boeing, and all the other program contractors.

I salute you.

Everett Pyatt is the Leader of the Project for Defense Management and Acquisition Leadership at the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a part of Arizona State University. He is formerly Assistant Secretary of Navy and Acquisition Executive.

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