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Army vows to change way it buys weapons

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Army needs to dramatically improve the way it buys weapons to ensure that equipment for soldiers is still relevant when they finally get it, the service’s No. 2 uniformed officer said on Tuesday.

Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne march in a division review ceremony attended by the U.S. President George W. Bush at Fort Bragg, North Carolina May 22, 2008. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

“We have to look at the entire system and how we do things, and take into account the rapid technological change that we’re seeing today,” Army Vice Chief of Staff General Peter Chiarelli said at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference.

“I don’t understand how we can take 8 to 10 years or even longer and put something on the street and have it be relevant,” he told reporters after delivering an even more blunt assessment to a panel discussion: “I’m a firm believer that it’s going to take the big bang theory.”

Chiarelli and other top Army acquisition officials said they are already changing the system to “buy fewer things more often” and leverage rapid technology changes, especially given mounting pressures on the U.S. defense budget.

Across the industry, companies like Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co, Raytheon Co and BAE Systems are responding to the coming budget crunch by pitching upgrades to current weapons and scaling back new development projects to focus on affordability.

Army acquisition has been in the limelight after Defense Secretary Robert Gates last year canceled the Army’s biggest modernization effort, the $180 billion Future Combat Systems program, followed by the Army’s decision in August to abruptly halt a competition for a successor ground combat vehicle.

“We didn’t understand the full impact of the dismantling of FCS,” Chiarelli told the conference.

But he said the Army was now clearly focused on acquisition programs through a service-wide review, and portfolio reviews of a wide range of military capabilities across the service.

REVIEWS LEADING TO MORE PROGRAM CANCELLATIONS

The reviews already helped find some $28 billion in savings in overhead and low-priority programs over the next five years to meet a goal set by Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Lieutenant General Robert Lennox, deputy chief of staff, said ongoing work on the reviews had resulted in additional program cancellations even after the Army submitted a proposed fiscal 2012 budget to Pentagon leaders in late September.

Chiarelli and Lennox declined comment on two programs reported to be on the chopping block, the Surface-Launched Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile being developed by Raytheon, and a multinational MEADS missile defense program led by Lockheed, saying the decisions had not yet been finalized.

Chiarelli said the military needed to focus more on making incremental improvements to weapons systems than pursuing ambitious “leap ahead” programs that took too long to complete, such as the massive Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS).

“It’s got to get better. It’s got to get more adaptive,” he said, noting that the Army was now using a different software-based radio on the battlefield that was developed much more quickly in response to a joint urgent operational need identified by military commanders.

Army officials told reporters that they were close to releasing a new strategy for a new multibillion-dollar Ground Combat Vehicle competition after canceling the previous request for proposals in late August.

The move frustrated many defense companies that invested tens of millions of dollars in preparing their proposals.

Army officials on Tuesday acknowledged the decision to revamp the competition had cost the industry money, but said it was important to get the acquisition strategy right.

The prime contractors bidding for that program are, BAE Systems and General Dynamics Corp. Their subcontractors include many of the largest U.S. defense contractors, such as Lockheed, Boeing and Raytheon.

NEW TACTICAL VEHICLE STRATEGY DUE NEXT WEEK

The Army next week plans to release detailed plans for upgrading some Humvees, replacing others with a new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, and the future of thousands of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles built for Iraq and Afghanistan.

Lennox said projected annual spending on wheeled tactical vehicles had threatened to exceed $3.7 billion a year, but the Army could only afford about $2.5 billion, which meant the service needed to make some tough decisions about how many vehicles to buy, and at what pace.

He said the lower spending target was also aimed at tamping down the military’s appetite for adding expensive “requirements” to vehicle programs.

Companies like Oshkosh Corp, BAE, Textron Inc and General Dynamics, and Lockheed are anxiously awaiting the new wheeled tactical vehicle strategy.

The service is still studying what to do about another big acquisition program -- the armed reconnaissance helicopter -- that was canceled in 2008. An analysis of alternatives should be completed by December, with a final report due in April.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Gary Hill

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