Failed $3B helicopter program shows dangers of poor planning

GAO explains importance of advanced planning and justification for big-ticket programs

Government officials need to be forward-thinkers as they set course for new programs, according to an analysis of a high-profile Defense Department helicopter program that failed after wasting $3 billion.

In a report released March 25, the Government Accountability Office reiterated that a program needs good planning from its earliest stages and a good reason why it’s needed in the first place.


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In the procurement process, officials need to compare their agency's resources with a program's requirements to make sure they match, according to the report. In addition, agencies should design programs that meet requirements and account for costs and production schedules. Finally, GAO said contractors need to show that they can complete a design within cost limits and schedule demands.

During the past several years, DOD and Congress have placed greater emphasis on front-end planning and sound business cases before starting programs.

“A knowledge-based acquisition framework involves achieving the right knowledge at the right time — enabling leadership to make informed decisions about when and how best to move into various acquisition phases,” GAO wrote in its report to Congress.

Lawmakers required GAO to review the Navy’s VH-71 presidential helicopter program. In 2009, DOD officials canceled the program because of scheduling delays, a poor product and bloated price tag. DOD spent nearly $3 billion on the program before canceling it.

In its report, GAO identified lessons from that program and its successor, the Presidential Helicopter VXX program.

GAO wrote that a stable design completed early in a program allows for more accurate estimates of the program’s cost. A sound design also provides a sturdier foundation for justifying funding. Another important factor in a successful program is balancing product design and customer expectations to avoid outstripping available resources.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Federal Financial Management, Government Information, Federal Services and International Security Subcommittee will hold a hearing March 29 to explore the topic. GAO auditors, DOD officials and experts are scheduled to testify on ways that DOD can tame its programs’ costs.

Budgets are too slim to waste money, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) said today.

“Given our nation’s fiscal challenges, we simply cannot afford to spend more money on weapons systems that fall short of expectations,” the subcommittee’s chairman said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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