2009/01/18

Quarter-century-long military programs

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The German army saw the need for a real-time reconnaissance UAV/drone in addition to the CL-89 concept - since about 1980 at the latest.

The system (KZO) is finally 'combat ready' in the German Army (the French one is another customer, but had similar systems before), with deliveries since 2005.
Its story was a story of changing requirements, reductions, work on spin-off projects (ESM, ECM and export recce) and delays, delays, delays. The troops expected it for many years, but it never seemed to arrive - until 2005.

The drone itself is quite promising - if it's really as survivable and as able to transmit its images/video real-time in an ECM environment as it was claimed.

Timeline:

1983 - Joint (GER/FRA) development program begins officially
1998 - troop trials
2001 - ordered
2005 - first deliveries
2006 - first use in Afghanistan
2008 - all systems delivered and "combat ready"

I've got a problem with this almost never-ending program length.

About a quarter century between requirement and full capability (with some question marks) is simply too long. Sure, the post-Cold War peace dividend slowed the program down (politics) - but it should have been in service before the Cold War ended. It was a required, after all - not sci-fi. The basic technologies were available since the 60's!

This is not the only quite questionable military development & procurement project.

The Tiger attack helicopter took almost forever as well (and we could have license-produced product-improved Apaches instead of starting the project in the first place). The Eurofighter/Typhoon is another one. Some projects lasted for decades till cancellation.

The Bundeswehr and its BWB (procurement agency) isn't alone, though: The British, Italians, French, Japanese and U.S.Americans have similar problems.
A common diagnosis is that requirements creep, budget games, high ambitions and gold-plating are some of the culprits for the problem.


Maybe we need to have much less red tape, but a strict and simple procurement system.

One example:

A technology & art of war agency can track technology development and develop new ideas of technology exploitation for the military mission.
Said agency initiates basic R&D two-year contracts that deliver several demonstrator systems or a non-technical improvement.

The joint general staff examines the products and foreign alternatives and writes a requirement.

A central development & procurement agency issues a tender for off-the-shelf equipment (including half-year period for privately financed development) or a tender for a development contract.

The development contract is fixed at up to ten years (set as maximum by law) with fixed value (inflation-adjusting, the use of the funds and the profit margin are up to the contractor) and a fixed result (several prototypes with well-defined specs - including a maximum production price).
The development phase includes a thorough proving ground and troop trial phase, a later deficiency correction phase and readiness for production. It can be canceled at any year by the agency based on political decisions. The design would be property of the agency. A failure to meet or exceed the initially guaranteed specs would result in a complete re-payment of all project funds (no bids from limited liability subsidiaries would be allowed).

Finally, there would be a tender for a production contract albeit this might result in just one bid if rare production techniques are necessary. No bid higher than the initially specified production price can be accepted and the lack of availability of an offer below the specified production price counts as failure to meed the guaranteed specs of the development project.

Product improvement / upgrade development contracts would need to be limited to shorter time spans (like max. four years).


This scheme would prohibit mission creep, development cost increases, budget-relaxing stretching of programs and would also reduce gold plating, technological risk and ambitions very much.
The reduction in ambitions and gold-plating as well as technological risk would be achieved through the risk for the development company; it wouldn't agree to a development contract with specs that might be beyond its capabilities.


I'm sure that many better schemes were already developed and proposed (I wasn't impressed by some proposals, that's why I developed my own one) - our politicians merely need to use existing good proposals to revolutionize procurement systems into something that's not a shame.

People and organizations often lack the self-discipline to execute an endeavor well that lasts very long - simple rules need to be applied to neutralize this weakness.
Development and procurement projects that last for a quarter century must not be tolerated; we need to become much more responsive and agile!

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