How to manage long project timelines? (part 2)
2 Aug 2013|

Two F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike FightersI discussed previously that force structure planning should take into account that new equipment projects have very long timelines—Andrew Davies’ post this morning explains clearly the downsides of getting the planning wrong. It might help to think of the future force structure as progressively emerging. Seen in that light, the aim of the Defence Capability Plan (DCP) is to continually refresh the force structure, rather than simply charting the sporadic path of multiple unconnected projects or as a blueprint for a ‘final’ future force. Under this concept, the key issues are the time when new capabilities enter and leave the force structure. Factoring realistic times into the DCP can provide some useful ways to manage the downsides of long project timelines.

For this, Defence is surprisingly well placed in being able to choose acquisition strategies across the continuum from developmental to off-the-shelf (OTS), from government-to-government to commercial contracts, and from many different countries, including Australia. Moreover, the OTS acquisitions can be new build, second-hand, leased or rented. There are considerable differences in the time to operational delivery across this spread of acquisition strategies, and with thought these time differences can be usefully exploited.

Developmental projects can take decades to deliver but are cutting edge in service for several more—think JSF. By comparison, the purchase of the second-hand HMAS Choules was completed within a year but the ship was already well into its service life and didn’t provide a revolutionary leap in capability. The negative impacts of long project timelines, and the risks that come with them, can be lessened through combining different acquisition strategies and overlapping the entry into and exit from service dates of new equipment.

Astute readers will say that Defence does this now. HMAS Choules plugged the gap when the Navy’s amphibious force unexpectedly collapsed before the arrival of the new-build Canberra Class LHDs. In a further example, the F/A-18F Super Hornet OTS purchase covered the slippages in the developmental JSF project. With some thought however, such rushed, ‘emergency’ acquisitions of interim or bridging capabilities can be replaced by a more considered strategic approach.

How might this work for Australia? In the earlier post we talked about revolutionary ‘big-bang’ projects and evolutionary, short ‘flash-to-bang’ projects. This distinction can be combined with the different acquisition strategies discussed here.

Australia’s next big revolutionary project is the future submarine. Recent decisions have narrowed the options to an evolved Collins—actually a hull of the same diameter but not necessarily much other commonality—or a new design hull, maybe of a different (larger) diameter. Regardless of which option is eventually chosen, if a big-bang acquisition strategy is used the first boats might well be revolutionary but will likely have a very protracted development that adversely impacts the overall ADF force structure.

A mixed acquisition strategy could help avoid this most likely outcome (PDF). Instead, the project to build twelve submarines could be undertaken in say four batches of three. The first batch could just have a different hull—either an evolved Collins shape or a new design. This first batch would use the extant Collins combat system, sensors, armament, communications and other systems as far as practical. The second batch might then keep the now-proven hull and introduce some new systems or weapons; the third and fourth batches might then each introduce further improvements and enhancements as the new submarine progressively evolves. There are obviously downsides to this approach, not the least being the first and last boat will be very different from a maintenance and sustainability viewpoint. From an overall force structure viewpoint though, shortening development timelines to get the new submarines faster and to a measured achievable pace might be worth it. And given the cycle time of submarines between dockings, in practice there’s a diversity of configurations to manage in any case.

Beyond this project-centric approach there are also other possibilities across the force structure portfolio. The transition from six Collins to twelve future submarines will be difficult quite apart from the project risks, even if using evolutionary batches.

Following the Air Force’s lead, could we move the Navy at least part way to its future force structure by acquiring (buying new or second-hand or leasing) some ‘bridging’ OTS submarines? Such extra boats could usefully supplement and complement the Collins Class boats. Of course they wouldn’t have the full capabilities of a new design optimised for Navy’s unique long range requirements, but they may give valuable experience in different technologies, different operating concepts and new thinking.

Looking beyond the platforms themselves, submarines provide anti-surface ship and anti-submarine capabilities. Another approach might be having other platforms that provide these capabilities to cover the long timelines before the new submarines enter service and the likely project delays. One example is the planned purchase of eight OTS P-8 Poseidon anti-submarine warfare aircraft—some additional aircraft could be acquired or leased to cover until 2030 when the first new submarines should enter service.

Maybe for those big ‘nation-building’ projects like submarines, the approach should be to hasten slowly but do it right, rather than rushing to meet unrealistic deadlines, even if that means selectively using a number of overlapping but quick OTS projects to bridge the gap. This concept sounds expensive, but could be cost-effective by allowing time to do the big developmental projects properly, thus avoiding later expensive get-well programmes.

Long timelines for some DCP projects may be a fact of life but, with some forethought, the risks that come with them to the overall ADF force structure can be managed.

Peter Layton is undertaking a research PhD in grand strategy at UNSW, and has been an associate professor of national security strategy at the US National Defense University. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Air Force via Wikimedia Commons.