Fast Facts

DOD invests billions of dollars in its weapons systems and expects them to be reliable.

We spoke with commercial companies known for creating reliable products to find out how they achieve reliability, and found that they often focus on four key practices—such as involving reliability experts early in development. We looked at 7 DOD programs and found that they didn’t consistently follow these practices. Instead, they often prioritized producing systems faster.

We recommended that the Air Force, Army, and Navy emphasize key reliability practices when developing weapons systems.

F-35 Aircraft

Four F-35 aircraft in flight

Four F-35 aircraft in flight

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Highlights

What GAO Found

The commercial companies GAO reviewed proactively address reliability. They strive to identify reliability issues at the component level early in the development process to avoid expensive rework after producing an entire system. GAO found these companies focus on the following key practices:

1. Leveraging reliability engineers early and often

2. Establishing realistic reliability requirements

3. Emphasizing reliability with their suppliers

4. Employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development

GAO found that the seven Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition programs it reviewed did not consistently adhere to these key practices (see figure). These programs often prioritized schedule and cost over incorporating the key reliability practices, and these systems generally were not as reliable as promised.

Key Characteristics of Selected Acquisition Programs' Approach to Reliability

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In 2019, DOD highlighted in a policy memorandum the importance of emphasizing reliability with contractors. However, the other three key practices have not been similarly highlighted. DOD has taken steps to accelerate weapon system development, and decision-making authority has been delegated to the military services. In an environment emphasizing speed, without senior leadership focus on a broader range of key reliability practices, DOD runs the risk of delivering less reliable systems than promised to the warfighter and spending more than anticipated on rework and maintenance of major weapon systems.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD invests tens of billions of dollars each year in major defense acquisition programs, designing and developing technologically advanced weapon systems that warfighters expect will meet specific performance requirements, including reliability requirements. Systems that are not reliable make it more difficult for warfighters to perform their missions.

GAO was asked to examine DOD weapon system reliability. This report addresses (1) how selected companies in the commercial sector address reliability, (2) how selected DOD acquisition programs addressed reliability, and (3) the extent to which DOD leadership has highlighted key reliability practices.

GAO collected information on leading commercial practices at the 2019 Reliability and Maintainability Symposium and from four commercial companies known for delivering reliable products. GAO also assessed how seven DOD acquisition programs—both older and newer, and representing all the military services—addressed reliability; reviewed key documents and interviewed knowledgeable officials; and reviewed reliability-related guidance and policy from senior DOD leaders.

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Recommendations

GAO recommends the Secretaries of the Air Force, Army, and Navy highlight the importance of three key reliability practices: leveraging reliability engineers, establishing realistic reliability requirements, and employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development. DOD agreed with GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of the Secretary of the Air Force We recommend the Secretary of the Air Force issue policy emphasizing the following three key reliability practices when planning and executing acquisition programs: (1) leveraging reliability engineers early and often, (2) establishing realistic reliability requirements, and (3) employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development. (Recommendation 1)
Open
The Air Force agreed with this recommendation and told us they will be updating Air Force Instruction AFI63-101/20-101 to ensure the inclusion of key practices to improve weapon system reliability, including leveraging reliability engineers early and often, establishing realistic reliability requirements, and employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development. As of June 2021, Air Force officials told us they are on track to implement the changes in the Air Force Instruction by October 2021.
Office of the Secretary We recommend the Secretary of the Army issue policy emphasizing the following three key reliability practices when planning and executing acquisition programs: (1) leveraging reliability engineers early and often, (2) establishing realistic reliability requirements, and (3) employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development. (Recommendation 2)
Closed - Implemented
The Army agreed with this recommendation and in March 2020, the Assistant Secretary of the Army (Acquisition, Logistics, and Technology) (ASA (ALT)) signed a memorandum directing Program Executive Officers to emphasize the three key practices GAO had identified: leveraging reliability engineers early and often, establishing realistic reliability requirements, and employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development.
Office of the Secretary We recommend the Secretary of the Navy issue policy emphasizing the following three key reliability practices when planning and executing acquisition programs: (1) leveraging reliability engineers early and often, (2) establishing realistic reliability requirements, and (3) employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development. (Recommendation 3)
Open
The Navy agreed with this recommendation and told us they plan to address GAO's recommendation in two ways. First, they are developing a guidebook for program managers and leadership to emphasize the importance of leveraging reliability engineers early and often, establishing realistic reliability requirements, and employing reliability engineering activities to improve a system's design throughout development. The Navy anticipates the guidebook will be completed by the end of 2021. Second, the Navy has updated the SECNAV 5000.2 to account for these key practices, and as of June 2021, approval of those changes is pending.

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