Monday, December 22, 2008

GAO Reports on Weapon Systems

In much discussion of US weapons systems, the Government Accountability Office is often cited as a source of information on costs, risks, and performance. For the basic facts, I think this is a good thing; they have access to data from multiple primary sources, and present it clearly.
That said, I have some concerns about their ability to present program assessments - their opinions - without spin. All too often, a report seems to lean toward the conclusions desired by the Congressman who requested it. Reports favorable of weapons systems acquisition programs seem rare, probably because no one really cares when things are going well.
My concern lead me to dig into the GAO archives, searching along the lifetime of the Aegis Weapon System since it has been in service for so long and is regarded as quite successful. What I found was quite interesting. First up, a June 12, 1980 report of the Comptroller General to Congress on Issues Identified in 21 Recently Published Major Weapon System Reports. This summary, written whe the Aegis weapon system was in limited production and the then-DDG-47 lead ship had started construction, expressed concerns about several key areas:

Foremost are Aegis availability problems, software reliability, ship weight, reduced antisubmarine warfare capability, and ship vulnerability.

The concern about ASW was the most interesting of the bunch, given the current debates about Littoral Combat Ship capabilities:
The DDG-47 will not have its planned full antisubmarine warfare capability when it is deployed. Neither the Tactical Towed Array Sonar (TACTAS) nor the LAMPS III helicopter is yet in production and will not be available until the follow ships are built.

The next report, Opportunities for Improving Management of Navy's Aegis Cruiser Program, was issued in February 1981. This report concluded that "serious questions surround [the Aegis Weapon System's] readiness to support naval carrier battle groups." This conclusion appears to be drawn based on the facts that the full system had never before been deployed, that "much of the weight allowance for the planned weapon system [had] been consumed," and that the program office had selected a power inverter for the first ship.
A report in February 1983 concluded that "the AEGIS combat system was not adequately tested before it was commissioned in January 1983" and notes that such testing was scheduled for May-September of that year.
Cost and schedule issues with the DDG-51 class were detailed in January 1990. Between the 1983 report on combat system testing and the cost issues for DDG-51, I found nothing on issues with the capability of the Aegis cruisers.
I think this is interesting, because it shows that given the right set of conditions, the Navy was able to manage and deliver a robust capability, even when the watchdogs found fault with the design and implementation of the first in class. Lets hope that they can replicate those conditions for LCS, and provide the fleet with a ship that performs its assigned missions remarkably well and with little publicity.