GAO: 2008-09 Weapon Programs Report
The US government’s GAO audit office has issued its 7th annual “Defense Acquisitions: Assessments of Selected Weapon Programs report (GAO-09-326SP). The report covers a total of 47 Pentagon weapons programs, compares their baseline against current costs and delivery schedule, and reports on these programs’ technical maturity, manufacturing maturity, and current issues. One interesting aspect of this year’s report is the GAO’s report that newer programs started in the last few years seem to be doing better than their predecessors.
GAO has a definite position with respect to acquisition reform, one that complements recent Pentagon initiatives in some areas, and diverges in other areas…
“Of DOD’s 96 active major defense acquisition programs, 64 programs have reported increases in their projected cost since their initial cost estimate. While there are different ways to measure the extent and nature of cost growth, there is agreement between DOD and us on the sources of the problem: (1) programs are started with poor foundations and inadequate knowledge for developing realistic cost estimates; (2) programs move forward with artificially low cost estimates, optimistic schedules and assumptions, immature technologies and designs, and fluid requirements; (3) changing or excessive requirements cause cost growth; and (4) an imbalance between wants and needs contributes to budget and program instability. These problems have roots in not only the acquisition process, but the requirements and funding processes… There is a need also to be mindful of the competing interests and other factors that have weakened the processes DOD now has, so that change can take place not only in the processes themselves, but also in the environment within which they must operate. The time for change is now…”
Overall, GAO believes that most programs are started, and given development go-aheads, with far less technology, design, and manufacturing knowledge than GAO would like. Some of this is inevitable in an organization whose requirements are threat-based, as well as cost based. Some is part of a vicious feedback loop created by lengthening development and service times for programs, which in turn requires front-line competitiveness over longer and longer time periods. Some is traceable to the American cultural affinity for gadgetry, magnified by the kinds of self-seeking bureaucratic and Congressional tendencies predicted in public choice economics, and fueled by high funding levels.
As a final note, John Young Jr.’s “Comments from the Department of Defense,” on page 171, are very much worth reading alongside the GAO’s material.
In particular, the assertion that the Department of Defense has developed a new set of metrics that more faithfully reflect program management was interesting; readers would benefit from their inclusion alongside the GAO’s own figures, and an explanation of the underlying difference.