Air Force releases plan to cut costs, buy new technology and fix bureaucracy

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Deborah Lee James, the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, speaks during an interview at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on March 23, 2014. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)
Deborah Lee James, the 23rd secretary of the Air Force, speaks during an interview at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, on March 23, 2014. (Jennifer H. Svan/Stars and Stripes)

Air Force releases plan to cut costs, buy new technology and fix bureaucracy

by: Amrita Jayakumar | .
The Washington Post | .
published: January 21, 2015

Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James outlined a three-pronged program last week aimed at cutting costs, speeding the purchase of new technology and taking a data-based approach to improving the service's internal bureaucracy.

As part of the program titled "Bending the Cost Curve," the Air Force plans to create an IT business analytics office to inform its buying decisions about software infrastructure, set up a $2 million competition for new-technology innovation and organize industry events where government officials can fast-track contracts to companies that "wow" them, James said in a Wednesday speech at the Atlantic Council, a Washington think tank.

The drawdown in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the subsequent pullback in federal spending, have made Pentagon officials increasingly concerned about the nation's ability to maintain its technological superiority.

Several prominent military leaders have taken to the stump in recent months to urge contractors to be more innovative, warning that countries such as Russia and China are ramping up their investments.

Departing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced a long-term plan last year that he dubbed the Defense Innovation Initiative, seeking to explore what cutting-edge technologies and systems the military should invest in, such as 3-D printing, robotics and big data.

The Pentagon has begun writing its procurement rules to create more incentives for companies to conduct research and development. The Air Force's effort aims to complement that work.

It's "a targeted initiative to encourage innovation and industry partnerships to procure systems and drive down costs," James said.

For starters, the Air Force will perform a "cost-capability analysis" on four of its programs, including the T-X jet trainer, and the Air Force's follow-on to a space-based infrared system.

The idea is to gather data about the benefits and trade-offs for a program and then tweak it to cut costs, she said. For example, if a new jet is required to fly at a certain speed, but the Air Force learns through its data analysis and collaboration with industry that reducing the speed a little would save millions of dollars, it could use that knowledge to modify proposals, she said.

The Air Force also will set up an office to analyze which software systems it should buy and their potential effectiveness. Private-sector companies perform such business analyses for their IT systems all the time, James said, but the Air Force has no such practice in place.

Finally, getting government officials and contractors to communicate on a regular basis is also on the Air Force's agenda. To do that, the service will borrow a leaf out of the Army's book, James said, and use a fast-track method of awarding contracts.

The service will organize a series of events where companies can show off products around a certain theme. If officials like what they see, they can use the special acquisition method to potentially award a contract to that company "in a few weeks," she said.

Eventually, the Air Force hopes to reduce the average time it takes to award a contract — 17 months for deals with only one supplier — and bring it down to less than 10 months, James said.

The events were created based on feedback that existing forums have little avenue for officials and companies to follow up with each other, James said.

"Industry gets a pat on the back and a gold star, but there's no mechanism to take it to the next level," she said.

The first event will take place at George Mason University on Tuesday and focus on intelligence gathering systems.