- - Thursday, September 26, 2019

America is rightly proud of its warfighters. They are the best at what they do, in peacetime and in battle. They keep us secure and are ready to answer the call any time the nation’s interests are imperiled. And because they are, it is incumbent on both the taxpayers and policymakers to do our utmost to ensure they have the finest food, training and equipment possible.

Procurement policy and Pentagon red tape are keeping this from happening. For nearly two decades, for example, the United States Army has been trying to replace the Bradley Fighting Vehicle. It made two attempts thus far, one an ambitious effort called the Future Combat System and the other something called the Ground Combat Vehicle.

Both failed and were eventually canceled, but not before an investment of more than $20 billion, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayers, went into them. It’s hard to overstate the importance of the Infantry Fighting Vehicle, which is what the Bradley is, to the safety of our troops and to their success in operations large and small. But the upgrades made to the existing vehicles have gone about as far they can go.

The Army’s not wrong when it says it needs something different, built on a new platform, to take over for the Bradley. In March of this year, it issued a request for proposals regarding the design and manufacture of what it’s now calling the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle. The president’s fiscal 2020 budget request contained $378 million in research, development, test and evaluation funds for it, and with that kind of a price tag the Army can’t afford to get this wrong, again.

Yet it may. It’s a top DoD priority, one that is supposed to combine proven automotive components, advanced weapons and leading-edge automation allowing it to function in some combat missions without a crew on board. In theory, it’s a 21st-century weapons system capable of doing things previously seen on the big screen in futuristic Hollywood blockbusters. In reality, because of the way the bids are being sought and the specifications identified, it’s likely to be another very expensive dud.

Because it’s failed so spectacularly in the past, the Army is now being called upon to choose between capability, competition and cost. To be fair, the folks in charge tried to do the right thing when they pushed for an accelerated delivery timetable for acquiring the OMFVs. But speeding up the acquisitions process by sacrificing its operational capabilities is not an improvement. It’s an example of the pendulum swinging too far in the other direction. The Army needs to reconsider its requirements to ensure the warfighter and the taxpayer aren’t the biggest losers in their acquisition shell game.

It’s not just another failure of imagination. U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are called on to do more with less in unfamiliar circumstances, which is a reality of the world in which we now live. Short-sightedness is dangerous. The speed at which our adversaries and competitors can field new capabilities and the pace at which technology changes puts America at the very real risk of losing our technological advantage. We shouldn’t be giving it away just to get new equipment into the field faster.

If this were a one-off problem, it would not be so nettlesome. However, the Army struggles more than the other service branches in matters of acquisitions. Two failed programs, the $18 billion Future Combat Systems, a collection of networked vehicles and sensors and the nearly $8 billion Comanche stealth helicopter cost more than what’s spent on NASA and the National Nuclear Security Administration combined.

The way things are now, the companies most likely to produce the best product might not even enter the bidding to win the contract. It’s highly likely they won’t be able to deliver what’s been determined the troops need on the schedule demanded. Meanwhile, our troops wait — as they have been waiting for 20 years — for a new Infantry Fighting Vehicle. None of this is fair nor is it right.

This is a Pentagon-wide problem. The Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments says DoD spent at least $46 billion between 2001 and 2011 on a dozen weapons systems that never entered production. We need to change the way we develop and procure critical technology that pays heed to the taxpayers while providing the best for our warfighters.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Deputy Secretary David Norquist, who led the Pentagon’s first-ever comprehensive audit, are in a unique position to fix the process so that it works for everyone. Their intervention is called for before things get too far out of hand. Expectations need to be reset, not just for the OMFV and its production timetable, but for the way new weapons systems are imagined, bid and built.

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