Tactical Aircraft:

DOD Needs a Joint and Integrated Investment Strategy

GAO-07-415: Published: Apr 2, 2007. Publicly Released: Apr 2, 2007.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) plans to invest $109 billion in its tactical air forces between 2007 and 2013. Long term, DOD plans to replace aging legacy aircraft with fewer, more expensive but more capable and stealthy aircraft. Recapitalizing and modernizing tactical air forces within today's constrained budget environment is a formidable challenge. DOD has already incurred substantial cost and schedule overruns in its acquisition of new systems, and further delays could require billions of dollars in additional investments to keep legacy aircraft capable and sustainable. Because of the large investments and risk, GAO was asked to review investment planning for tactical aircraft. This report describes the current status of DOD's new tactical aircraft acquisition programs; identifies current impacts on legacy aircraft modernization programs and retirement schedules; and assesses DOD's overall investment plan for tactical aircraft.

DOD's efforts to recapitalize and modernize its tactical air forces have been blunted by cost and schedule overruns in its new tactical aircraft acquisition programs: the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), the Air Force F-22A, and the Navy F/A-18E/F. Collectively, these programs are expected to cost about $400 billion--with about three-fourths still to be invested. The JSF program, which is expected to make up the largest percentage of the new fleet, has more than 90 percent of its investments still in the future. Increased costs and extended development times have reduced DOD's buying power, and DOD now expects to replace legacy aircraft with about one-third fewer new aircraft compared to original plans at each program's inception. The outcomes of these acquisition programs directly impact existing tactical aircraft systems. Until new systems are acquired in sufficient quantities to replace legacy fleets, legacy systems must be sustained and kept operationally relevant. Continual schedule slips and reduced buys of new aircraft--particularly in the F-22A and JSF programs--make it difficult for program managers to allocate funds for modifying legacy aircraft to meet new requirements or to set retirement dates for legacy aircraft. Lengthening the life of legacy systems also impacts DOD's new tactical aircraft acquisition programs. DOD has become increasingly concerned that the high cost of keeping aging weapon systems relevant and able to meet required readiness levels is a growing challenge in the face of forecast threats and reduces the department's flexibility to invest in new weapons. DOD's tactical aircraft investments are driven by the services' separate acquisition planning. Moving forward, these plans are likely unexecutable given competing demands from future defense and non defense budgets. The EA-6B--providing tactical radar jamming capabilities for all services and one of the few examples of a joint asset--is also expected to be replaced by separate and unique aircraft for each of the services. Without a joint, DOD-wide strategy for tactical aircraft investments, it is difficult to identify potential areas where efficiencies might be achieved or where capability gaps might occur in DOD's tactical aircraft acquisitions.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: In order to recapitalize and sustain capable and sufficient tactical air forces that reflect what is needed and affordable from a joint service perspective and that has high confidence of being executed as planned, the Secretary of Defense should take decisive actions to shorten cycle times in delivering needed combat capabilities to the warfighter including adopting a time-certain development cycle that can deliver an increment of new capability within 5 to 6 years after the start of system design and development, and reassessing requirements for ongoing weapon system acquisition programs to identify ways to reduce requirements and speed up delivery of initial capabilities.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Since this report was issued, DOD has implemented a series of actions to shorten cycle times, reduce requirements, and speed up delivery of capabilities to the warfighter. These actions include (1) further revisions to the 5000-series defense acquisition regulations; (2) the 2009 Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act; (3) rapid acquisition initiatives by the Joint Staff; (4) a series of OSD directives; and (5) the 2010 and 2011 aircraft investment plans. Collectively, these actions move the Department in the direction we recommended, not only for tactical aircraft but for all defense systems acquisitions. We are therefore closing this recommendation as implemented.

    Recommendation: In order to recapitalize and sustain capable and sufficient tactical air forces that reflect what is needed and affordable from a joint service perspective and that has high confidence of being executed as planned, the Secretary of Defense should develop an integrated enterprise-level investment strategy that is based on a joint assessment of warfighting needs and a full set of potential and viable alternative solutions, considering not only new acquisitions but also modifications to legacy aircraft to achieve this balance within realistic and affordable budget projections for DOD; strikes a balance between maintaining near-term readiness and addressing long-term needs; and considers the contributions of bombers, long range strike aircraft, unmanned aircraft, missiles, and other weapons currently in the inventory and those planned that can be employed to attack the same type targets as the tactical aircraft.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In February 2010, DOD issued a report that included plans to address most of the issues outlined in GAO's April 2007 report (GAO-07-415) on tactical aircraft investments. In this report, DOD included aviation plans for capabilities needed to meet current and projected national security objectives, the potential role or use of unmanned aircraft, bombers, and other platforms, and an assessment by the Secretary of Defense of the extent to which the combined aviation forces of the Departments of the Air Force and Navy meet the national security requirements.

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