17 May 2011

Nerd Crush

I admit it, I have a major acquisition nerd crush on the GAO. I don't read every report they put out, but their annual Assessment of Selected Weapon Programs is always a big event for me. It's like the Oscars and the Superbowl all in one, except it's not on TV... and the only uniforms involved are military... and it's not really a competition... and there aren't any commercials.

USS Virginia (SSN-774)Anyway, I've also got a cross-service fondness going on for the Virginia Class submarine program. Shhh... don't tell the AF. Now, you may wonder how a guy who advocates the fast, inexpensive, simple, tiny approach could have anything nice to say about something as big, expensive and complex as a nuclear sub? Read on...

The 2011 GAO Assessment report had some fascinating things to say about the VA subs. For example, the Navy "expects to realize its goal of reducing cost to $2.0 billion per ship... and hopes to further decrease the time required to build each ship." Of the 71 other programs assessed in that report, only one or two had bothered to set a goal of a reduced cost or time. Imagine what would happen if this was a standard practice? What if every program got a budget and then was expected to set a cost goal that's below that figure? As in, not only will we not tolerate overruns or late deliveries - we expect early delivery, UNDER budget.

The Navy is showing this can be done... and incidentally they delivered the USS New Hampshire 8 months early, $54M under budget. Nice!

It gets better. The report goes on to say "the Navy has decided not to pursue two planned technology insertions," which is an impressive sign of design restraint and gutsy leadership. Why did they abandon plans, for example, to include a "conformal acoustic velocity sensor wide aperture array"? Because "it would significantly increase, not decrease, life-cycle costs and complicate maintenance." Since this array would have increased costs and complexity, they dropped it.

This isn't just the result of good leadership. It's evidence of a pervasive culture of restraint, one that says overreaching is foolishness and complexity is not the same thing as goodness.

In another case, they "determined the original requirements were unrealistic and would not be worth the cost to achieve them." If only every program would do this sort of assessment. And the funny thing is, there's nothing stopping us from taking this approach all the time.


ckstevenson said...

But will the Virginia class sub need that stealth capability? And will it perhaps become the reason the subs are found by the enemy?

I know you aren't exactly arguing this, but when we don't discuss what the tradeoff is to the warfighter when we reduce scope, then we're doing them a disservice. Functionality in the warzone equates to life and death, not just money saved.

The Dan Ward said...

Good catch - and I can't believe I omitted a key phrase from that GAO report: these changes could be made "without impacting operations." I think I included it in the initial draft of the post but as I did some editing I seem to have deleted it and not replaced it.

You're 100% correct that impact to the warfighter is key to this whole discussion. It's so central that I didn't even mention it.

*hangs head in shame*

The good news is: no worries, the tradeoffs we're talking about did not increase the risk of any sailor's lives. The VA subs passed all their sea trials and indeed, the changes were approved explicitly because there would be "no impact to operations."

The bad news is, for reasons which will always be a mystery to me, I inadvertently left that part out. Thanks for the catch.

Paul said...

Hey Dan, it's been a while, but I am catching up. Thanks for fighting the good fight!
Both you and ckstevenson have good points. But the implicit point (or maybe I just read between the lines) is that we are in a "new" fiscal reality that needs to have cost as part of the trade space. The warfighters will always want more utility. It's their job to put that pressure on the system.
The very fact that a conscious, LCC-driven design trade was made early in the program is impressive. In my experience, capability is often sacrificed only after major overruns are already in progress. Painting a program into a corner like that is not a design trade, it's a design mishap.

The Dan Ward said...

Welcome back, Paul - thanks for the note!

The current fiscal realities are indeed driving a new breed of decision making, where things like LCC becomes a big part of the decision making. Of course, I believe it always should have been part of the decision, but I'm just glad to see it's finally happening in some programs... Better late than never, eh?