March 1, 2010  

Acquisition’s lost keystone

The Air Force should reactivate Air Force Systems Command

On July 1, 1992, the Air Force inactivated Air Force Systems Command (AFSC), and its functions were subsumed into Air Force Logistics Command, which subsequently became Air Force Materiel Command. What was eliminated was an acquisition institution of roughly 50,000 highly trained military and civilian acquisition professionals, headed by an Air Force four-star general with 28 acquisition-experienced general officers, including three three-star division commanders. The decision process to eliminate AFSC was closely held, and no open debate on the justification took place, particularly not with senior officials, active or retired, in the Air Force acquisition community. On the other hand, the original creation of Air Force Systems Command had a rich, openly debated heritage.

Toward the end of World War II, Gen. Hap Arnold directed a series of reviews on how to structure a new independent Air Force and exploit new technologies for the future Air Force. Theodore Von Karman, the author of the future Air Force road map, “Toward New Horizons,” recommended a separate institution in 1945. The Ridenour Committee, which included Jimmy Doolittle, recommended in 1949 a separate research-and-development command. Gen. Hoyt Vandenburg, then Air Force chief of staff, had Gen. Orville Anderson conduct another study, which also recommended a separate R&D command with its own budget and people. As a result, Air Research and Development Command (ARDC) was created in 1950. However, the debate continued through the 1950s, since Air Materiel Command still controlled the budget.

Generals Vandenburg, Curtis LeMay, Don Putt, Larry Cragie, Tommy White and Mark Bradle — literally all of the Air Force senior leadership — were all involved in an open continuing debate on the issues, and the end result was that, in April 1961, the Air Force Systems Command was created as the Air Force Acquisition Institution, by the secretary and the chief of staff.

Logic had prevailed in that it was recognized that the logistic support function and the R&D function were not compatible in either philosophy or culture. The logistic function must provide immediate day-to-day support to the operational forces. It must be ready, fully funded and risk averse. The R&D function focuses on the future, is incrementally funded and is heavily into risk management. In the logistics world, the future is today. In the R&D world, the future is tomorrow.


The demise of Air Force Systems Command coincided with a drastic reduction in the overall Defense Department acquisition work force, from 240,000 in 1990 to 124,000 in 1999, as part of the Cold War peace dividend. The reduction was done fairly precipitously, without regard to skills retention and future needs. Thus, over the decade of the 1990s, the Air Force acquisition work force declined drastically in both skills and numbers. The four-star commander who managed and nurtured the acquisition work force was gone. Critical management processes were eliminated, such as the major program reviews that had to be conducted quarterly, beginning with the AFSC product division commander and his functional chiefs, then at AFSC headquarters by the commander and his functionals, then the Air Council, and finally to the secretary and the chief. This process constituted superb adult supervision. Having been through that process twice as a major program manager, the learning, supervision and guidance were invaluable. The critical development planning process whereby new promising technologies were nurtured to the system development threshold disappeared. With the elimination of Air Force Systems Command and its strong four-star leader, the disciplined process and accountability of program management, which reached systematically down from the AFSC commander to each program manager, atrophied, as well as the careful acquisition, training and assignment of critical members of the acquisition work force.

In January 2002, I published an article in Armed Forces Journal, “Saving DoD acquisition,” that examined the demise over the 1990s of both the civilian and military acquisition work force and suggested the creation of a Defense Department acquisition work force model to define mandatory career paths for both civilian and military members, with dedicated training and successive higher level assignments, so a career path could be defined for the brightest acquisition professionals to aspire to the very top levels of responsibility.


Unfortunately, over the past few years, Air Force acquisition performance has continued to decline. There were a number of programs with significant schedule slips and cost overruns in the billions of dollars. Recently, the new undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics criticized the Air Force for its performance. On Jan. 27, 2009, the secretary of defense, in testimony before the Senate Armed Services, singled out the Air Force as an example of the deterioration of the acquisition work force. The service that produced the F-15, F-16, Airborne Warning and Control System, F-117, the Global Positioning System and the Defense Support Program satellite constellation in the 1970s and 1980s was now trailing its sister services in acquisition performance.

The Air Force has done several studies over the last few years to improve its acquisition performance. The latest effort, directed by the secretary of the Air Force on July 18, 2008, was done by the Center for Naval Analyses, titled “CNA Independent Assessment: Air Force Acquisition.” The executive panel, or task force, included several retired Air Force general officers, including two former AFSC commanders who had personally managed major programs in the prior Air Force Systems Command. It is a hard-hitting report, underscoring the demise of Air Force acquisition excellence, and finding it behind the acquisition management performance of the other services, and awash in a series of severe program schedule slips and budget overruns. The study found there was no consistency or clear program management standards being applied in the Air Force acquisition programs. The study recommended that the summit process — in which then-senior leadership of the Air Force, led by the chief of staff, reviewed each new major program and set the detailed guidelines to be followed — be re-established. It also recommended that the quarterly program review process be re-established to re-create consistency and discipline in a frequent periodic program review process.

The study and its recommendations were presented to the Air Force secretary and the chief of staff. Subsequently, on May 4, the secretary and the chief approved the Air Force Acquisition Improvement Plan (AIP). While it incorporated many of the recommendations of the study, it did not include the summits or the quarterly reviews. And clearly there was no dedicated acquisition four-star to rebuild Air Force acquisition excellence. That is a burden that cannot be foisted on the commander of Air Force Materiel Command. He is staggering under the requirements for intensive logistics support to Air Force flying and ground forces half a world away. It is a continuous 24/7 challenge that outranks any other concern. However, according to the AIP, he is also burdened with the task of trying to rebuild the acquisition work force.

While Congress, recognizing the severe shortages in the Defense Department acquisition work force, has appropriated funds for additional people, the critical training problem is overwhelming and requires a long-term commitment and a detailed program. We need requirements analysts, system engineers, configuration managers, cost estimators, contract negotiators, test conductors, logistics support analysts and program controllers (a function which has disappeared from Air Force program offices.) It will take 10 years under a well-controlled plan to rebuild these capabilities, keeping in mind that training must include a deliberate succession of real-world assignments out in the field to gain the experience. It would be of great assistance if the Office of the Secretary of Defense could hire midlevel experienced people from industry for term appointments of several years, but with current congressional restrictions, they could not return to their companies. Unfortunately, we have many senior people who today fill acquisition assignments, but have little experience in the “nitty gritties” of cost estimating, doing system engineering analysis, negotiating contracts with industry, or managing a complicated program or work force.

Only a dedicated acquisition institution can do this job. The Air Force should re-establish Air Force Systems Command with a tough dedicated four-star to lead it. AFJ

GEN. LAWRENCE A. SKANTZE (Ret.) was vice chief of staff for the Air Force from 1983 to 1984 and commander of Air Force Systems Command from 1984 to 1987.