Procurement: An Offer You Can Refuse

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March 31, 2012:  The U.S. Air Force is withholding $621 million in payments for AMRAAM air-to-air missiles. That's because the manufacturer has been late in delivering 193 of the 552 missiles ordered. The delays have been due to faulty components, especially the rocket motor. The air force had been having a hard time persuading the manufacturer to get it right, so withholding over half a billion dollars is being tried, in an attempt to provide the needed motivation.

AMRAAM has been around for a while and undergone several upgrades, without these kinds of problems. The air force does not want to return to the bad-old-days. AMRAAM entered service in 1992, more than 30 years after the first radar guided air-to-air missile (the AIM-7 Sparrow). AMRAAM was meant to succeed where the AIM-7 didn’t. Vietnam, in the 1960s, provided ample evidence that AIM-7 wasn't really ready for prime time. Too many things could go wrong. Several versions later, the AIM-7 got another combat test during the 1991 Gulf War. In combat 88 AIM 7s were launched, with 28 percent scoring a hit. The AIM 9 Sidewinder did worse, with 97 fired and only 12.6 percent making contact. That said, most of these hits could not have been obtained with cannon, especially when the AIM 7 was used against a target that was trying to get away.

AMRAAM was designed to fix all the reliability and ease-of-use problems that cursed the AIM-7. But AMRAAM has only had a few opportunities to be used in combat, and over half of those launched have hit something. The 120D version entered service five years ago and has longer range and greater accuracy and resistance to countermeasures. So far, AMRAAMs have spent over 1.7 million hours hanging from the wings of jet fighters in flight. Some 2,400 AMRAAMs have been fired, mostly in training or testing operations. That’s about a quarter of those produced.

AMRAAM weighs 172 kg (335 pounds), is 3.7 meters (12 feet) long, and 178mm (7 inches) in diameter. AMRAAM has a max range of 70 kilometers. These missiles cost about a million dollars each. The missiles are complex mechanical, electronic, and chemical systems and each of them, on average, suffers a component failure every 1,500 hours.

The air force and the navy have had an increasing number of incidents where their suppliers of high-tech weapons and equipment screwed up. Cancelling orders and taking manufacturers to court has not eliminated the problems. The military accuses the manufacturers of having a bad attitude, feeling that if there are problems it's easier to cozy up to members of Congress than it is to fix the technical problems. So far, that seems to be working, while the weapons and equipment don't.

 

 


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