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DoD Needs New Measures For Valuing Weapons: Mitchell

US Air Force F-35A

WASHINGTON: The Pentagon should not judge weapon systems on “overly simplistic metrics” but adopt a more holistic evaluation that weighs a weapon’s cost and capabilities against the total costs of achieving the mission, a new paper from the Mitchell Institute argues.

“All we ever hear is, that the F-22 and the F-35 are expensive. But is that really the case if a handful of them can accomplish what it otherwise take dozens of less capable aircraft to achieve?” said Mitchell’s Executive Director Douglas Birkey in a webinar today. “When we think about costs our goal should be to use the least amount of force to yield the greatest result.”

Mitchell is pushing a new methodology, dubbed “cost-per-effect,” for determining a value for high-end weapon systems, in particular fifth-generation and future combat aircraft. And they’ve caught the ear of at least some in Congress.

The Senate version of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes language (Section 153) requiring the Air Force to contract two independent studies on the Mitchell concept. Further, the language instructs the service “to consider including harnessing cost-per-effect assessments as a key performance parameter within the Department of Defense’s Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) requirements process.”

“A cost-per-effect assessment measures the sum of what it takes to net a desired mission result, not just a single system’s acquisition and support costs without necessary context surrounding the capability’s actual use,” explains the policy paper, authored by Birkey and Mitchell’s Dean Dave Deptula.

“Current measures favor lowest up-front per-unit cost (an ‘input’ measure) for a piece of equipment that may only address one facet of the kill chain without taking into consideration the mission-effectiveness of the particular system (an ‘output’ measure),” the authors add.

“We have to use industrial age measures when using information age capabilities,” said Deptula. “Assessment tools have to keep pace,” he added, noting in particular the advent of joint all domain operations.

Under the concept of all-domain warfare, “platforms don’t exist as a single entity,” explained Brig. Gen. David Harris, new head of the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC). “A weapons system can be used, for example, as a node to relay information or provide lethal effects on the the battlefield.”

While the paper argues that applying a cost-per-effect assessment would help DoD make better choices when considering how to resource different service programs aimed at achieving similar effects (think beyond-line-of-sight targeting), it is primarily aimed at the Congress and the Air Force. The goal is to reset the baseline by which modern combat aircraft are judged as worthy in annual DoD budget battles, which are only expected to get worse as the cost of combatting the COVID-19 crisis hit home.

The Air Force’s high-end fighter jets and stealth bombers consistently provoke sticker shock on Capitol Hill and with the public for their stratospheric per-plane price tags and costs per-flying hour.

The fifth-gen F-35 fighter, for example, currently is estimated to cost a whopping $35,000 per hour to operate; and each of the planes priced out at $77.9 million at the end of last year after years of much higher costs per unit. DoD asked Congress for $11.4 billion for 79 of the Joint Strike Fighter variants, but as Sydney reported, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees are fighting over whether to cut the program or pump it up.

Mitchell argues that the Air Force should “prioritize solutions that yield maximum mission value and not rely on overly simplistic metrics, like cheapest per-unit acquisition cost or individual cost-per flying hour, as these may actually drive more expensive, less capable solutions.”

It further presses Congress to include language in the NDAA to force DoD to develop a methodology for using cost-per-effect assessments for key mission areas and integrate those into future developments.

The Mitchell paper defines “cost-per-effect” as: “The total cost involved with achieving a specific mission outcome. This includes mission aircraft to execute the actual task, as well as direct support assets. These include aerial refueling tankers, electronic jamming platforms, and surface-to-air missile suppression efforts. It also includes aircrews and requisite infrastructure like basing and related maintenance support.”

The paper provides several factors that the authors say should be taken into account by the Air Force in developing such an assessment. First, and foremost, the overarching focus of all missions for “future high-end capabilities” should be on peer conflict with Russia and China. Other factors specific to aircraft, the paper adds, are:

  • “Precision effectors, both kinetic and non-kinetic;”
  • “Survivability;”
  • “Fifth-Generation attributes of stealth, electronic warfare, sensors, processing power, communication links, fusion engines, and real-time command and control (C2);”and,
  • “Aircraft range and payload.”


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