Why Air Force special operators need acquisition skills
The Air Force’s special operators, having spent a decade honing their skills in far-flung combat zones, must begin to seek expertise in a different kind of theater: military acquisition. The next few years hold a special challenge for the Air Force Special Operations Command. Even as defense spending growth flattens and special operations forces remain highly tasked in Afghanistan, AFSOC will recapitalize its C-130 aircraft fleet and reshape its rotary-wing and nonstandard aviation fleets.
It takes understanding, long-range vision, careful planning and commitment to shepherd new aircraft from idea to funding to delivery. During numerous commander’s calls, one former AFSOC commander spoke of his time in the Secretary of the Air Force Acquisitions Directorate of Global Reach. He said that experience paid huge dividends in later years as he oversaw the introduction of the CV-22 tilt-rotor, MC-130J and myriad nonstandard aircraft.
AFSOC’s limited budget means the command has to get acquisition right, and that means operators must participate in the requirements generation process. Yet most special operators, like their conventional counterparts, know little about the “business side” of the Air Force. How can the command ensure it has the skills to manage these vital transformations?
The only way to build and maintain such competence is through education and experience. Amid a culture that reveres operational skill, leaders must find ways to foster and reward the accumulation of this “nonoperational” expertise. AFSOC must make a concerted effort to assign its people to Air Force and SOCOM acquisitions billets early in their careers.
What knowledge would AFSOC members glean from a tour in acquisitions? Plenty, starting with the basic fact that Defense Department acquisitions is not a single process, but three interdependent yet unsynchronized ones: the annual planning, programming, budgeting and execution process; requirements definition; and acquisition itself.
The PPB&E process is an annual activity that produces a five-year funding plan. But because that five-year plan is revised yearly under multiple internal and external pressures, the practical result is an annual one-year plan prone to instability — the bane of successful programs.
From the Air Force perspective, the PPB part looks like this: Every year, the major commands develop their program objective memorandums, or POMs, by taking the total costs of all of their programs and balancing that against a finite amount of money (their total obligation authority). They then develop a cut line, and anything that does not make the cut is excluded from the budget. The major commands send their POMs to Air Force headquarters, where the AF/A8 (strategic plans and programs) performs the same type of ordering and balancing. (This is typically where the Air Force takes its congressionally directed budget cuts.) The AF/A8 is mainly concerned with balancing the proverbial checkbook, with specific attention shown to the next year or two.
The E in PPB&E — execution — is how the money gets spent. In aircraft procurement, Congress traditionally authorizes the services to spend the funds, which are then obligated though a contract vehicle (think of this as being purchased on credit) and finally expended (the check gets written to pay the bill).
Here’s the rub: Programs with poor obligation or expenditure rates are viewed as sick and ripe for funding reductions or termination by the Air Force or the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A program is judged by its execution; if it is sporadic or well below the OSD-mandated level, regardless of the reason, it generally loses funding to correct the problem, resulting in serious delays.
So while there may be pressure to underfund programs, AFSOC members must understand that it is essential to ensure stable funding streams. That means that when AFSOC draws up its POM, it must ensure that it fully funds all major defense programs. There may be many reasons that execution is not on schedule; underfunding should not be one of them.
Another key budgeting concept is Major Force Program funds, defined officially as “an aggregation of program elements that reflects a force or support mission of DoD and contains the resources necessary to achieve an objective or plan.” The military buys its aircraft through MFPs: the ones for general-purpose forces, mobility forces, strategic forces, etc. SOCOM, and by extension AFSOC, is unique in that there is a SOF-specific fund, called MFP-11.
We can look at the MC-130 as an example of how this works. Air Mobility Command is the lead command for procuring the Hercules, so AFSOC MC-130s are bought using MFP-4, the mobility forces fund. But the SOF-specific modifications (precision strike package, terrain-following radar, etc.) are paid for with MFP-11 funds. This division allows AFSOC to make a relatively small MFP-11 budget go a long way. Competent AFSOC acquirers will look for ways to leverage MFP-4-related expenses while husbanding MFP-11 funds for unique SOF capabilities. Officers not well-versed in this distinction can quickly squander funds.
Beyond the purely financial, AFSOC officers must also understand the Air Force process that turns requirements into material solutions. As AFSOC prepares to buy a new generation of aircraft, its leaders must be particularly wary of exquisite (read: prohibitively expensive) solutions. AFSOC/A5 must be staffed with people who can balance tactical expertise and a realistic view of what is “good enough” to accomplish the mission.
Just as planning a major operation must start with commander’s intent and a developed strategy, so must the initial phases of a major defense acquisitions program. Among the pertinent questions: Should AFSOC order an airplane designed from scratch, or can it use an existing platform? In general, weapons that advance through the entire acquisition process will deliver a better-integrated, more elegant solution. But accepting an existing solution will generally be cheaper, at the expense of not fulfilling all of the requirements, or of needing to mitigate the gap with postproduction modifications or special tactics, techniques and procedures.
Another dimension of strategy is time. Does AFSOC need all of the capability at once, or can it plan a program of incremental changes? Such an approach can reduce risk, allow quick fielding and deliver deliberate periodic increases in capability. A good example is the MC-130J, whose block upgrade program takes an aircraft very similar to the Marines’ KC-130J and eventually brings it to a standard that includes terrain-following radar, advanced avionics, data links and other improvements.
To answer these questions, a good analysis of the cost vs. capability trade space is essential, as is a grasp of the concept of cost as an independent variable. If there are multiple solutions to an equipment problem (like what sensors to install), acquirers must weigh the benefits of the marginal dollar. If sensors X and Y both meet the requirements, is the added cost of sensor Y worth the added capability?
To do this correctly, leaders must be able to calculate benefits and costs across a number of alternatives. They must then weigh these alternatives to optimize the benefits. While the Air Force does not use many modeling tools to analyze this trade space, the important thing for leaders to do is to explore numerous options across the cost/benefit curve to identify the options with the most benefit and the least marginal cost increase.
Failing to make cost vs. capability trades early in a program life cycle often creates significant cost increases. Operators who understand that cost is important and must be evaluated against value are better prepared to make the hard choices that keep programs on track.
All of these concepts can be brought to bear on specific debates within AFSOC. Some argue that the command should use MFP-11 funds to develop an SOF-specific weapon tailored to our mission sets. It’s an appealing idea, but it is fiscally untenable in the foreseeable future. The 2012 Defense Budget Priorities and Choices document directs, “as we reduce air force structure, we are protecting aircraft with multi-role capabilities [versus] niche capabilities.” An SOF-unique aircraft risks providing a niche capability solely funded by precious MFP-11 dollars and thus vulnerable to cuts by OSD. AFSOC is quite capable of partnering with other major commands to develop and then improve conventional force equipment, and in the near term, this will be the best way to keep the fleet viable.
In short, AFSOC needs a blend of highly competent acquirers and operators who understand strategy, requirements, budgeting and acquisitions and who can determine acceptable levels of risk for a program. This expertise must go beyond the core acquirers; it must reside with the operators and leadership within the command.
To develop such personnel, AFSOC should assign tactically competent, rated field-grade officers to AF/A8 and the Secretary of the Air Force Acquisitions Office, as well as the equivalent SOCOM positions.
Nonrated acquisition professionals should be assigned to AFSOC/A8 and have follow-on assignments to SAF/AQ and in SOF-specific system program offices. Finally, AFSOC should assign rated officers to liaison positions in the system program offices to ensure each has a direct link to its user.
The ultimate goal is to ensure that as AFSOC recapitalizes its fleet, it has senior officers with a deep understanding of and experience in making procurement decisions. AFJ
LT. COL. NATHAN SCOPAC is the chief of the Tactical Airlift Branch at the Secretary of the Air Force Acquisitions Office, Directorate of Global Reach Programs, where his responsibilities include oversight of the Air Force’s program management and acquisition of C-130 and C-27 aircraft. He is also the C-130J and HC/MC-130J program element monitor. Currently he is completing the MC-130J mission qualification course. The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or positions of the Air Force, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.