Hill to study DOD buying

A senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee plans to investigate additional acquisition reform initiatives as part of this year's budget process to address the failure of the Defense Department's procurement system to adequately support airmen operating on the front lines in Iraq and Kosovo.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee's Readiness and Management Support Subcommittee, said his committee recently was given responsibility for acquisition reform. He said he plans to investigate recent failures of DOD to provide critically needed information technologies to pilots flying combat missions against anti-aircraft sites in Yugoslavia.

Inhofe, a former commercial pilot with 40 years of flying experience, said the investigation into DOD's acquisition system is at the top of his list of things to consider during this year's Defense authorization bill mark-up process.

Inhofe's investigation comes after Federal Computer Week reported last week that Air Force officers piloting the A-10 "Warthog" anti-tank aircraft - the same airplane that recently flew into action in Kosovo and Yugoslavia in support of the NATO bombing mission - used Velcro to attach handheld Global Positioning System receivers in their cockpits because older Combat Survivor Evader Locator (CSEL) radios were not equipped with integrated GPS receivers. A pilot shot down behind enemy lines could use the GPS receivers to send his exact location to rescue teams, thereby improving his chances of being found.

"There's no excuse to have anybody [flying] without this technology because it is so inexpensive," Inhofe said.

Inhofe has appointed committee staff member Bill Greenwalt to spearhead the committee's effort to look into DOD acquisition reform programs. According to Greenwalt, the real issue is that the acquisition community "has the tools to insert technology faster and cheaper if [only that community] were to use them."

House members also were surprised by the lack of high-tech tools available to pilots. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), a senior member of the House Armed Services Committee and chairman of the Research and Development Subcommittee, called the fact that pilots fly with handheld GPS receivers attached to their cockpits with Velcro "an absolute disgrace."

According to Weldon, "This is happening because there's no process [and because] it's a shoot-from-the-hip approach" that the Pentagon uses to support warfighters.

According to Brig. Gen. John Clay, the Air Force's director of space and nuclear deterrence in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisitions, strict budgetary constraints have delayed sending the most up-to-date CSEL radios to pilots on the front lines, and those constraints have eliminated any hope of fielding the systems before the planned fielding date of 2002.

"We're [faced with] a lot of tough budget choices, [and] we try to make the best ones," Clay said. However, because the money for newer CSEL radios already has been programmed into the Air Force's Future Years Defense Program, "I don't think there's any chance" of fielding it any sooner, he said.

As an interim fix, the Air Force purchased 1,000 Hook-112 radios, which are older radios revamped for the Air Force by Motorola Corp. to include a new integrated GPS module. According to Clay, 500 of the systems went to the Navy, while the other 500 went to the Air Force, which maintains a fleet of about 5,000 aircraft.

"We don't intend to buy any more of the Hook-112s [either]," Clay said. "They were intended to be a gap filler."

Clay said testing last year indicated a 94 percent pass rate for the new CSEL systems, which were able to help rescuers locate downed pilots within an area the size of a helicopter's rotor diameter.

According to Clay, the Air Force has debated fielding the upgraded CSEL radios sooner than 2002. However, "you really want the full system there and ready to go," rather than an interim capability, he said. "There are concerns about providing a partial system that could, in fact, slow us down in the long run."

However, Marine Lt. Col. Mant Hawk-ins, an F/A-18 pilot and the operations officer for Marine Air Group 31, said an interim capability for certain systems is often the only thing available to pilots who go into combat, and it is better than having nothing. "To fly with a GPS-equipped survival radio tells me that I'm located on a Navy aircraft carrier, and I'm in [a hostile theater]," Hawkins said. "That's the first time I'll see something like that."

Chip Mather, senior vice president at Chantilly, Va.-based Acquisition Solutions Inc., a firm that provides acquisition support and best-practice guidance to federal agencies, said the acquisition community needs to focus more heavily on warfighter support.

"Too many people think acquisition is contracting," Mather said. "The poster child of acquisition reform was to reduce the source-selection time. Taking away that issue, however, shined the harsh light of success where it should be - on the acquisition community as a whole and not just contracting officers."

Although many statutory reforms tie acquisition success to mission accomplishment, in many cases this new approach has not been put into action, Mather said. "Until there is a direct linkage between mission accomplishment and the success of the acquisition program, acquisition reform is largely a buzzword."

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