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Buffenbarger: The U.S. Air Force’s Billion Dollar Mistake

For more than a decade, the American people sacrificed to rid Afghanistan of tyranny and terror but, incredibly, once again the Department of Defense has turned its back on American workers. In a now all too common move, the DOD has again used exigent, irregular procurement authority to establish a multi-year, multibillion dollar program of record with a foreign owned company. So as Air Force officials prepare to testify before the House Armed Services Committee on Friday, lawmakers should seize the opportunity to question the DOD’s decision to ignore formal procurement processes that consider the value and dependability of American workers while so many are still struggling to find work here at home.

The Air Force contract in question would initially build and deliver 20 light air support aircraft to the Afghan Air Force at a cost of a slightly more than $400 million. But the LAS program, according to the Air Force, is set to expand to hundreds of aircraft over time, with billions of dollars at stake that could be harnessed to bolster American manufacturing jobs.

What’s more, by using unique war procurement authority, the DOD was able to spend at least 40 percent more — $125 million more for a foreign aircraft — an outcome that would be far less likely if formal, long standing procurement processes had been followed. The LAS aircraft that the DOD selected will be used over the next two decades in 27 countries under the claim that it is needed in Afghanistan now. Given the cuts resulting from the sequester, surely there is a better way to use public dollars.

For generations, the U.S. aerospace sector has been a partner with the military, building and servicing airplanes for every conflict since World War I. Today, the aerospace industry directly employs more than 600,000 skilled Americans, including highly-skilled engineers and machinists, but their ability to respond to the needs of our armed forces is being compromised. The Air Force’s LAS procurement allowed it to bypass many normal DOD-mandated requirements-setting and procurement procedures and the American worker’s opportunity to build that needed aircraft was subverted as a result.

Traditional DOD procurement processes protect the American taxpayer from paying too much for a particular aircraft, while also ensuring that the aircraft that actually fulfills the need is the one purchased. This is done by rigorous requirements setting, a needs validation and an assessment of costs and risks. The processes also include assessments that reflect the effects on national security and cost/benefits of American produced weapons systems. When these processes are not followed, as in the LAS case, the American worker’s value —both reliability and costs — are not reflected in the procurement decision. This produces an uninformed procurement decision and leads to increased future costs, unreliable logistics and part supply, and mismatched requirements and capabilities, and huge unassessed future costs, all needlessly. This is simply sloppy procurement at its worst. And it occurs at a time when we can least afford it, while the sequester takes effect and the country withdraws from Afghanistan.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Since the only requirements the Air Force used to determine the LAS program of record were entirely focused on Afghanistan, the procurement for Afghanistan should proceed to avoid a purported withdrawal delay according to the DOD.

However, lawmakers must insist to the secretary of the Air Force and other DOD officials that the procurement decision be limited solely to Afghanistan. A 27 nation Building Partnership Capacity program of record should not be allowed to stand on the unique and irregular Afghan requirements and the use of unique wartime procurement authority. Procurement officials must be required to follow proper requirements and procurement processes if they seek to establish a program of record worth north of $9 billion for 26 countries dissimilar from Afghanistan in multiple and unassessed ways.

Members of the House Armed Services Committee should no longer neglect to press Air Force officials on this critical issue as they did during their last hearing. Putting pressure and increasing accountability for the Air Force will protect the American taxpayer, it will protect the purchasers of the program of record, and it will include proper consideration of the value and reliability of the American worker. All of this will produce a thoughtful, informed procurement, which is the goal after all. Our workers can and do produce the finest weapons in the world if given the opportunity of a fair requirements development process and formal acquisition.

As the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, I am proud of the high quality aircraft that our members at Beechcraft have produced for the Air Force. Together with the company we are confident that we have built a superior, cost effective product that will serve the ongoing needs of our military trainers, as well as the allied militaries around the globe that will want to purchase the AT-6, and, eventually, other U.S.-made aircraft. But first, the Air Force and the Defense Department must correct the scope of the LAS procurement.

Thomas Buffenbarger is the president of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

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