Air Force May Lose Credibility With Industry Over Light Attack Decision

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The U.S. Air Force has loudly and consistently proclaimed its commitment to acquisition reform. Part of that commitment is forging a closer working relationship with industry. However, its recent decision to indefinitely postpone procurement of a Light Attack Aircraft (LAA) calls into question that commitment. It also may cause industry to hesitate when it comes to investing its resources in support of future rapid acquisition initiatives.

On January 18, 2019, without warning, the Air Force announced the indefinite suspension of the LAA program. This decision was particularly problematic given that only weeks before the Air Force had been working with industry to refine a Request for Proposal (RFP) in anticipation of releasing the final version around the end of 2018.

The LAA program was viewed by many both inside and outside the Air Force as the test case for that service’s rapid acquisition capability for prototyping based on the use of non-developmental platforms and experimentation. The Air Force conducted two rounds of experiments that were deemed so successful that it canceled additional planned experiments. Instead, it moved to write an RFP based on the conclusion that two platforms, the Sierra Nevada-Embraer A-29 Super Tucano and Textron AT-6, could meet the Air Force’s requirements “within the Air Force’s time frame without causing an unacceptable delay in meeting the needs of the warfighter.” This seemed to be precisely the outcome that the Air Force’s new acquisition practices were intended to produce.

Moreover, there was significant support in Congress both for the Air Force creating a light attack capability, and for the process, the Air Force had been following. In the FY 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, $300 million had been set aside specifically to acquire a light attack platform and associated equipment.

Air Force leaders have offered a smorgasbord of reasons for suspending the LAA procurement. According to Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, after more than two decades of counterinsurgency operations on multiple continents, the Air Force still doesn’t know what the right mix of fixed-wing, rotary-wing, manned and unmanned is that can do the business of light attack. He also seemed to suggest that the Air Force hadn’t done its market research regarding the demand for a light attack capability and lacked a plan for convincing allies and partners to participate in the LAA program. Other Air Force sources suggested that the experiments which preceded the initial decision to acquire LAA somehow hadn’t provided sufficient information on performance or the cost of operating these aircraft.

It is difficult to take seriously the Air Force’s various and even conflicting rationales for its 11th-hour decision to suspend the LAA procurement. After all, the Air Force had been considering options for LAA for more than a decade and had conducted multiple tests, exercises and experiments with various platforms. It had spent hundreds of millions to design, develop, procure and sustain a fleet of A-29s for the Afghan Air Force and knew very well how that platform was performing in a challenging environment. The Air Force also knew that there was significant international interest in an LAA. Six A-29s had been sold to Lebanon, and Nigeria signed a contract for 12 of the aircraft.

There is lots of data on the costs of operating light attack platforms, particularly the A-29 and AT-6. According to a study by the Air Force Association Mitchell Institute, the platforms that were under consideration for the LAA program had per hour operating costs one-tenth or less that of advanced fighters. Then there are the costs associated with training pilots and aircrews, a considerable challenge for all Air Forces, but mainly for many U.S. allies and partners. The program to equip the Afghan Air Force with the A-29 makes a convincing case for the ability of even the most technologically-challenged allies to fly and maintain that propeller-driven light attack platform.

Fundamentally, the Air Force has the right to buy whatever platforms it wants and can afford. It also has the right to cancel a planned procurement for any reason. That does not mean that indefinitely suspending the LAA procurement was a wise move, particularly given the Air Force’s desire to demonstrate that it can be a smart and agile consumer.

What the Air Force did on the LAA RFP impacted its credibility with the private sector. Industry had spent years responding to the Air Force’s requests for information, supporting various experiments and preparing for the release of the LAA RFP. The costs to the companies that participated in these activities were substantial. Given the way the Air Force pulled the rug out from under them, it is fair to wonder whether they will be willing to put out a similar effort for a new, nebulously defined experiment. As retired Air Force General Michael Loh observed, there has to be a business case in order for private companies to play in the Air Force’s experiments: “There’s got to be a requirement or funding or both at the end of that, otherwise you’ve got guys in industry that are investing a lot of money, and they’re looking back at light-attack aircraft. What did you do? Nothing. You put it on the back burner.”

There also has to be trust. The LAA decision may make it more difficult for the Air Force to get the best from industry when it restarts its light attack experiments. Moreover, the unfortunate lessons from the LAA RFP are likely to reverberate across Air Force acquisition. How confident should industry be that the Air Force can actually conduct rapid acquisition programs? How much credibility will the Air Force have when it asks industry to participate in experiments or prototyping efforts when even successful ones like those associated with the LAA lead to nothing?

Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.

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