Department of Defense acquisition professionals focus heavily on the pre-award steps required to get a new weapon system under contract. This ensures the procured product ends up meeting the operational requirements and budgetary constraints. After a system is procured, the acquisition team transitions to life-cycle management, and communication between the acquisition team and the operational users breaks down. When a system has a flaw, this communication drought can be disastrous for the end user. Better communication between acquisition and operational professionals is required to improve future purchases of the system and the operational user’s experience.
The C-130J Hercules transport aircraft offers a worthwhile case study. When Lockheed Martin began the plane’s development in 1991, the company was not seeking to revolutionize the propeller-driven cargo aircraft market. Instead, it sought to increase the performance and capability of an existing, highly proven aircraft. By almost every measure, it succeeded. The C-130J has increased performance over its earlier models, and the aircraft no longer requires a dedicated navigator; a state-of-the-art avionics system, the communication/navigation/identification–management system (CNI-MS) allowed a reduction in required crew.
The CNI-MS—“the Box,” as the pilots call it—is an impressive piece of avionics. It handles almost all the computational and communication requirements of the two-pilot crew. It works well, even though it was originally designed and programmed in the early 1990s—with three big caveats. During certain critical phases of flight (times when the already dangerous act of flying a tactical transport plane becomes even more perilous), three different programming errors can misinform or mislead the flight crew. (I discussed them with Air Force Captain Alex Fontaine in a personal interview in January 2019.) These issues have been known for many years, but new C-130Js continue to roll off the line with the same software. Why has the acquisition community not held Lockheed Martin accountable?
Critical Flight Phases
Sometimes, a C-130J crew has to “trick” the Box into giving the pilot correct data. These occurrences are rare, but they occur during times when the data provided by the CNI-MS is most critical, because misinterpretation of the data could lead to loss of the aircraft, its cargo, and its crew. Most frustrating to those who fly the Super Hercules is that the simple programming errors at the heart of the issue should have been fixed years ago.
“It’s not that these programming errors were made,” Captain Fontaine told me. “It’s that we knew about these errors in the early 2000s, and Lockheed Martin kept producing aircraft with the same problem.”
The first error occurs during the preflight checks for a “max-effort takeoff,” when a crew wants to gain altitude as quickly as possible, and it can only be performed if the aircraft is under a certain gross-takeoff weight. The pilots cannot rely on reference speeds provided by the CNI-MS and must perform a manual calculation to confirm that, in the event of an engine failure, their takeoff speed will stay at or above the minimum safe speed. If there is risk of dropping below the reference speed, then the pilots must refer to three separate pages of emergency procedures on their kneeboards, which hold simplified flight manuals strapped to their upper thighs.
Two other programming errors show up when the crew is preparing for two different unusual landing configurations: the “combat landing,” a procedure designed to help aircrew avoid enemy antiaircraft fire; and partial- or no-flap landings. The result can be incorrect information about required landing distance or speed. In either situation, serious injury to the aircrew and damage to the aircraft could result if the crew doesn’t refer to printed aircraft flight manual information.
Any one of these errors on their own could result in a catastrophic loss of aircraft, materiel, and life. When they occur during the same landing and takeoff cycle, the chances of a tragedy are compounded. An aircrew in a combat zone might need to mitigate all three during a single mission. If the crew were flying at night, they could even be using night-vision goggles, compounding the stressors on the crew. Unusual takeoff and landing procedures are among the most intense, stressful flight maneuvers, and they create a crew-resource nightmare that looms over the Air Force’s tactical airlift community.
The elimination of the C-130’s navigator position leaves the crew without a spare set of hands at critical moments. Even during normal operations, the second pilot has a complex set of duties to assist the pilot landing the aircraft. These duties include monitoring communications between the ground controllers, communicating with other aircraft in the area, and scanning for threats. When the pilots cannot rely on the Box, the second pilot is forced to look through the flight manual and quickly read charts to provide the landing pilot with the proper landing data. This takes the monitoring pilot completely out of the game, all thanks to longstanding, fixable programming errors.
Fix the Problem, Not the Blame
Problems such as this are not unique to Lockheed Martin or the C-130J Super Hercules. Many military programs, systems, and equipment have quirks. Most could be solved easily through communication between operational users and the professionals managing the programs for the Department of Defense, who could then hold contractors accountable.
The solution would not be difficult to implement. First, acquisition personnel need to establish means for operational users to provide feedback directly to the contract office. Second, the acquisition corps running the life-cycle management centers need to share that feedback with contractors and hold them financially accountable for any errors not fixed. Operational users and program managers need a permanent feedback loop through which to seek continuous improvement.
To begin, acquisition professionals—program managers and administrative contracting officers at life-cycle management centers, program offices, or other acquisition centers—should reach out to their end users. Initial outreach efforts should focus on large-scale programs, such as the C-130J or other aircraft. Only a limited number of squadrons operate any given aircraft, so each program office would have relatively few connections to make, and first contact could be as simple as an email. A personal phone call to the squadron’s front office would likely be more effective, but either way, subsequent feedback and communication could be conducted by email.
After the major weapon system programs have gone through a cycle or two of collecting feedback, other programs can follow, using the lessons learned from the first wave of outreach. Systems that affect more components of the force would require a more-complex feedback loop and honing that loop would—hopefully—perfect the methodology of soliciting feedback.
Phase two will require processing the feedback solicited by the acquisition teams and incorporating qualified changes into existing contracts and acquisitions. Not every piece of feedback will be actionable, and sometimes users simply will have to accommodate themselves to any remaining quirks. A good amount of the feedback, however, ought to be usable by the acquisition team. Once the team has sorted the feedback to identify what is usable, they will be able to give direction to and work with the contractor to issue modifications and change orders as appropriate.
The third and final phase will involve expanding the role of what the Air Force refers to as the resource advisor. This advisor funnels purchase requests from individual units to the contracting squadron, straddling the line between procurement advice and advocacy for their unit. Under the new model, the advisor will not have to wade deep into the weeds of acquisition procedures. Instead, the in-unit representative will be educated in how to work with the program officers to use the new feedback-and-response loop. It starts with knowing who to call (or how to find that out). An easy way to do this would be to create “customer service” websites for resource advisors to access. These would include directories separated by functional specialties as well as web-based forms to provide written feedback directly.
One obstacle is the training required of the in-unit representative. Current efforts to reduce the additional training load on personnel across the Department of Defense mean there likely would be pushback from operational commanders who may be loath to add to their people’s already gargantuan workload. (In fact, when I pitched this idea to a joint group of military officers, this was the only significant objection.)
But the additional training is minimal, not much more than providing in-unit reps with an address book and a website login. This proposal has the potential to increase warfighter lethality at a cost of one additional training module for one person per unit, worked into training already provided to resource advisors.
Acquisition professionals may be more adamantly opposed. The acquisition career fields are staffed by dedicated but often overworked professionals, and some hold the opinion their responsibility ends after the contract is signed. That’s an archaic attitude, however. And it flies in the face of how Major General Cameron Holt describes Air Force policy to the podcast “The Contracting Experience” (on episodes 8 and 9 from this past March): creating “mission-focused business leaders.”
Major General Holt, one of the Air Force’s top acquisition professionals, said that such leaders are not content to grind away in their cubicles with little-to-no knowledge of the strategic or tactical implications of the programs they serve. Rather, mission-focused leaders must involve themselves in the effects of their contracting decisions on operational users.
Time to Act
Major General Holt’s direction must be a call to action. Business leaders in each service must reach out and solicit feedback from operational users. By forming a feedback loop between business leaders and operational professionals, the U.S. military has the potential to cut down on potentially fatal errors, improve warfighter lethality, and create a more effective force.