While U.S. Defense Department programs that go over budget and smash their original schedules to bits tend to get all of the attention, most people overlook the costs involved in keeping those high-tech weapons systems up and running once they’re actually deployed.
Well, the Government Accountability Office is paying attention, and released a report yesterday admonishing the Pentagon for not doing a good job of managing operating and support (O&S) costs for a number of big-ticket programs. The GAO focused its efforts on seven major aviation weapon systems: the Navy’s F/A-18E/F; the Air Force’s F-22A, B-1B and F-15E planes; and the Army’s AH-64D, CH-47D and UH-60L helicopters. The focus remained on aviation systems because they allowed the watchdog to compare O&S cost growth across the selected systems.
And what did GAO investigators find? Well, only that the DoD “lacks key information needed to effectively manage and reduce O&S costs for most of the weapon systems GAO reviewed,” which includes “lifecycle O&S cost estimates and complete historical data on actual O&S costs.” In other words, the services’ have been doing a shoddy job of collecting historical data on weapon systems maintenance costs, and as a result “DOD officials do not have important information necessary for analyzing the rate of O&S cost growth for major systems, identifying cost drivers, and developing plans for managing and controlling these costs. At a time when the nation faces fiscal challenges, and defense budgets may become tighter, the lack of this key information hinders sound weapon system program management and decision making in an area of high costs to the federal government.”
None of this will come as a huge surprise, of course - especially to the department. Last year, Congress passed the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act, which aimed to improve the accuracy of cost estimates for major weapons programs, and which mandated the GAO to undertake this particular report. The report recommends that the DOD revise its guidance to require the services to “retain lifecycle O&S cost estimates and support documentation used to develop the cost estimates for major weapon systems,” and to continuously update cost estimates for weapon systems throughout their lifecycle.
The DOD responded to the report by accepting most of the criticisms, although pointing out that many of the proposed reforms were already underway. Furthermore, defense officials volunteered, in the bidding and planning for one of the biggest new programs, the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), reliability and maintainability “are being emphasized in the design and engineering phase of the program.”