Proactive Prototypes

For new tech systems, a return to competitive prototyping

Last March a group of Alabama lawmakers met with the Pentagon’s top acquisition official to discuss a new program, the Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM). The lawmakers—looking out for the city of Huntsville, a legendary missile development hub—wanted to know what came next. The official told them the usual process was at work: the military would run a competition for JAGM and pick one contractor to develop it.

A few months later, though, those same lawmakers demanded to know why the usual process would no longer be followed—they had just learned a new plan called for the Pentagon to pick at least two teams to compete against each other, and they weren’t happy about it.

What had happened was that a new sheriff had come to town—or rather a new top acquisition official, John Young. Last September, Young issued a policy that went beyond competitive bidding and resurrected an old idea: competitive prototyping. Every Pentagon development program, he decreed, had to involve at least two prototypes early on—to be developed by competing industry teams—before the military could decide whether to move forward into what it calls the system design and development phase, the lengthiest and costliest part of the process.

The military has used competitive proto­typing on occasion, most notably in major aircraft efforts such as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the largest program in Pentagon history. But Young’s memo decried a pattern among “many troubled programs” that were pushed forward before they were ready, wasting time and billions of dollars. The problem, in part, was that defense officials often made decisions “based largely on paper proposals that provided inadequate knowledge of technical risk and a weak foundation for estimating development and procurement costs,” he wrote.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) agrees. In a March 2005 review of more than 50 major weapons systems, GAO auditors found that only 15 percent “began development having demonstrated all of their technologies mature.” And development costs, the GAO found, increased an average of 41 percent in these cases, compared with a 1 percent increase in systems that began with mature technologies.

Prototypes pitted against one another, Young contends, will give developers a better idea of a technology’s maturity long before large amounts of money have been spent—and well before a program becomes entrenched in the Pentagon and congressional budget process, when many troubled efforts persist despite huge problems because of so many vested interests. He also believes that an emphasis on “quality prototyping” will help reduce the time needed to field key technologies—hence, the decision to change the acquisition strategy for the JAGM program before it proceeded too far, too fast.

Philip Coyle, the Pentagon’s top weapons tester during the Clinton administration, lauds Young’s push. During his time in the Pentagon, Coyle encountered many programs that eschewed competition early “in the interest of saving time” and money, “but it always turns out that’s not the case,” he says. One example: the tilt-rotor V-22 Osprey, now flying in Iraq after 20 years of problematic development. Aggressive, competitive prototyping might have shaved years off of the program’s development timetable, Coyle states.

Jacques Gansler, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics under President Bill Clinton, concurs with Coyle. “Too often we have jumped into programs without proving the technology,” he says. With prototypes employed early on, Gansler argues, the Pentagon has benefited. One example: the F-16 fighter competition in the 1970s.

More recently, the Joint Strike Fighter program began with a competition involving prototypes built by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Defense officials flew both aircraft extensively before choosing Lockheed’s variant, now called the F-35. Coyle, while praising that early prototyping effort, says that the Pentagon stopped the competition too soon. Today, he notes, F-35 “costs are rising, and schedules are slipping”—total program costs have increased to a projected total of $100 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service. The lesson from the Joint Strike Fighter, he believes, is that the Pentagon must carefully define what prototypes are.

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