A set of rigid requirements doomed the VH-71 program from the start, but the presidential helicopter replacement program now appears to be back on track, a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report states.

“A key to successful development is the ability to make early trade-offs either in the design of a product or the customer’s expectations to avoid outstripping the resources available for product development,” the GAO said in its report, “Defense Acquisitions: Application of Lessons Learned and Best Practices in the Presidential Helicopter Program,” released this spring.

“The VH-71 program was not afforded room needed to pursue these needed trade-offs,” the report said. “Stringent performance requirements (some with no flexibility) were laid out for the system prior to the start of development and did not appear to involve significant consideration of trade-offs of cost, performance and schedule negotiated between the customer and the developer.”

In June 2009, the GAO noted, following the expenditure of close to $3 billion and a critical Nunn-McCurdy breach of the cost growth threshold, the Defense Department terminated the Navy’s VH-71 presidential helicopter acquisition program and contract because of cost growth, schedule delays and projected system performance.

“The VH-71 program’s failure to follow acquisition best practices was a critical factor in the program’s poor performance that led to its ultimate termination,” the GAO said.

“It started with a faulty business case, did not perform appropriate systems engineering analysis to gain knowledge at the right times, and failed to make necessary trade-offs between resources and requirements even after years of development.”

Program turned around

The VH-71 program’s experience, the GAO said, “validated the need to execute a knowledge-based acquisition process with discipline, confirming the danger of not replacing risk with knowledge earlier in the acquisition process.”

But the program has been turned around.

“VXX program officials seem to understand this lesson learned from the VH-71 program and appear to be establishing a knowledge-based acquisition process emphasizing early systems engineering,” the GAO reported. “One of the primary lessons they learned from the VH-71 program’s experience is that there must be an early, solid business case with a rational balance between requirements, cost and schedule. To accomplish this, they have stated that a rigorous, four-phase systems engineering and technical review process will be used.”

Early VXX program efforts, the GAO said, appear to reflect the intent to pursue a knowledge-based acquisition.

The VXX program is currently in the “materiel solution analysis phase of the acquisition process,” the GAO said, and program officials are documenting the capabilities required to perform the defined mission, the specific capability gaps that exist and the need to address them.

The GAO said its review of the updated program “indicates that it addresses all three of these areas and also appears to align with acquisition best practices.”