Lip Service Is Not a Substitute for Robust Competition

In this July 11, 2014 photo, patient Amanda Thornton, left, of Aloha, Ore., speaks with primary care doctor John Guerreiro at a clinic run by the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center in Beaverton, Ore. The center comprised of nine clinics in northwestern Oregon, serveing 36,000 patients in Washington and Yamhill has been overwhelmed under the Affordable Health Care Act's Medicaid expansion. It has closed to new enrollees and is working through a backlog to assign thousands of patients to a doctor. (AP Photo/Gosia Wozniacka)

The US Air Force (USAF) is in the process of developing the next generation Inter-continental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). This critically important next generation nuclear deterrent is known as the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent (GBSD) and it is needed because America’s current ground based nuclear deterrent is the Minuteman missile that was first deployed in 1962. It was originally designed to last 10 years. The system has been updated over 50 to 60 years to keep pace with the growing threat, but the aging system requires a complete overhaul to assure continued deterrence for the next 50+ years.

Unfortunately, the USAF has completely mismanaged the process and despite paying lip service to “competition,” is now on the verge of awarding a sole-source, cost plus contact for more than $85 billion. Let that sink in. Something as important as our nuclear deterrent could be done without serious competition. As a result, the American taxpayer will likely be forced to pay more, wait longer, and get less protection from growing nuclear threats. It didn’t have to be like this and there is still time for President Trump and Member of Congress on both sides of the aisle to demand that the Air Force regroup and get this important detail right.

GBSD’s need is so obvious, that in an era of virtually no bi-partisanship, GBSD nonetheless has strong bi-partisan support. But, we must get this right because will have to live with the results for the next 50 to 60 years. And on the nuclear front, the world will be far more dangerous the next 50 years than it was the last 50 years. And with China’s plans to challenge and replace the US as the world’s most powerful nation, we cannot afford to have our nuclear deterrent be second best. The murderous and dictatorial communist Chinese leadership will not be a benevolent force in the world.

While the Air Force paid lip service to “competition,” it created a process that subverted any real or robust competition. And the Air Force defended its flawed process by arguing that the urgency was so great that they couldn’t slow down to get things right — even if in the end it would save time, save money, and produce a far better and capable nuclear deterrent. Perhaps most importantly, this mismanagement a less robust system means that America will be at greater risk for the next 50 or 60 years — until the next major update and redevelopment.

Simply put, the Air Force’s mismanagement means that GBSD will be more costly, arrive later, and be less capable. It is particularly ironic because the Air Force has been warned that it was mishandling things (I’ve written on this before — Next Generation ICBM Should Be The Result Of Robust Competition and I’m not the only one.)  But their response was always to chant the magic word “competition” while digging in its heels and proceeding to subvert any serious competition.

A robust competition between America’s best minds, and most capable high tech firms will produce a more robust system and at a lower cost. Moreover, a teamwork approach would speed its development and deployment. With real competition, GBSD will be less costly, be developed faster, and be more capable and effective. Even if you think fixing the Air Force’s past mismanagement might cost some time with a restart, wouldn’t you want our nuclear deterrent for the next 50 to 60 years to be as robust as possible?

Ask yourself if Olympians perform better running all alone in an ordinary workout, or when they are in a competitive environment and are pushed by other top Olympians in the race. The answer is obvious. The Air Force has presided over a process that effectively asks an Olympian to perform his best while working out alone. If that sounds dumb, you understand the level of mismanagement.

The Air Force competitively selected Boeing and Northrop Grumman as the only viable providers of GBSD. Almost immediately, Northrop Grumman bought the sole, viable manufacturer of solid rocket boosters for this rocket – Orbital ATK, and likely did so to corner the market for GBSD. The solid rocket boosters are a major part of the GBSD program and constitute about 1/2 of the cost of each missile. In any event, no matter who makes the rest of the missile, the rocket boosters will be made by Orbital ATK. But if Northrup Grumman is allowed to use its ownership of Orbital ATK (in contravention of a consent decree made at the time of the purchase to avoid precisely this situation), they can effectively price their competition out of the game by charging them more for the rocket boosters.

So the Air Force has effectively and massively favored one competitor in the GBSD process and thereby eliminated the balance, fairness and benefits of competition. Consequently, Boeing informed the Air Force that they will not pursue an unfair solicitation. This makes perfect sense — why invest millions in a so-called competitive process that isn’t remotely competitive because the outcome is predetermined by poorly conceived ground rules?

Had the Air Force removed the rocket booster portion the GBSD project out of the competition, they could have had a robust competition between two great high tech firms on the rest of the GBSD system.

While the Air Force has made it clear that its heels are dug in and it won’t correct its mismanagement, President Trump and Members of Congress must demand that the Air Force start the competitive process over and hold a real competition.

The Air Force must be instructed to remove solid rocket booster component from the competition — since either party will use the same booster, it isn’t a factor. Then, the two firms can innovate and compete on the technology and capability and cost of the missile. The taxpayer benefits and all of us who would like to be protected from nuclear attack will have the most robust deterrent possible.

President Trump and Congress should speak with one voice on something as fundamentally important as America’s nuclear deterrent. That one voice should be saying, “Wait a minute! This system that will protect us from nuclear threat for the next 50 to 60 years. It must be the result of a real and robust competition, not a sham process.”  The Air Force has said that competition matters. It is now time for their actions to prove that they mean it!