TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- The KC-135 Block 45 program, a nomenclature for
Communication, Navigation, Surveillance/Air Traffic Management (CNS/ATM) is an
avionics upgrade that has recently achieved tremendous success. The KC-135
program office crafted a contracting model to bolster small business
participation which resulted in significant savings to the government. Not only
is this a feat for the KC-135 program office, but for the entire Department of
Defense acquisition community.
During Low Rate Initial Production, the team negotiated
and procured Group A kit technical data from its prime contractor, Rockwell
Collins. The Group A kits consists of piece parts to include items such as
wiring, trays, mounts, clamps, nuts, and bolts – items that are vital to the
overall integration of the digital avionics upgrade. Conversely, the Group B
kit items are the modifications’ main components such as screens and
processors. Obtaining the technical data for the Group A kits allowed the
KC-135 team to solicit bids and later award contracts to five small businesses.
Deputy Program Manager 1st Lt. Joshua Neace broke down the
process a bit further. “The first phase of our model was structured so that the
first lot of kits was built by five of the lowest bidding contractors in order
to ensure the vendors could produce to quality performance standards,” the
lieutenant explained. “The next phase was structured so that one of the five
qualified vendors would build the entire lot of kits, awarding to the lowest
bidder.” Naturally, the competition spurred a quality product for the
government at the lowest price to the taxpayer. The savings from this strategy
“We’ve embraced OSD’s Better Buying Power initiative, and
as a result, we’ve not only driven competition but we’ve seen significant
savings,” Lieutenant Neace said.
Better Buying Power was an initiative introduced in 2010
as a part of the Department of Defense’s acquisition reform for efficiency.
Essentially, the primary objectives are identifying and pursuing cost savings
opportunities and highlighting competition.
Frank Kendall, the Under Secretary of Defense for
Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, was the brain power that launched the
Better Buying Power initiatives, emphasizing that “competition is the most
effective tool we have to control cost.” Mr. Kendall advocates wise stewardship
of taxpayer dollars through these principles and guidance.
The KC-135 program office team did just that. Rather than
taking the traditional contract approach of utilizing a single contractor to
continue the production effort, the team embraced the increased workload and
risk by constructing a multiple award small business contract strategy in order
to maximize every taxpayer dollar.
Contracting Branch Chief Alan Lee spoke to the success of
the Fair Opportunity Notice award.
“This allows the aircraft avionics to be totally
revamped,” Mr. Lee said. “The Department of Defense is about the only entity in
the U.S. promoting small businesses in this way. We track and report everything to Congress
that we give to small businesses as well as having small business goals for
each year. The Air Force could have acquired all the kits from [our prime
contractor] and had them do everything, but instead the team took the bigger
risk and bigger challenge. This kind of continuous competition drives the price
down, providing the best value for the government and real life savings while
still meeting performance requirements.”
Capt. Anthony Konakowitz, who operated as the lead program
manager, praised his team’s efforts and their willingness to do something out
of the norm for a major acquisition program. “The group,” he said, “vetted
small businesses but arguably the most tedious work came from the auditing
process – every single dimension, every centimeter, and wire was audited and
“Talk about risk – there are a lot of unknowns when
utilizing small businesses. We have large kits that we need produced, both in
size and volume. But, my initial concern eased through the process and as we
built relationships with these small businesses,” he said. “If they are
capable, we want them to have that opportunity to work.”
This “game changer” strategy was not implemented
overnight. The program, which began back in 2009, began with a vision for
promoting and planning small business participation for kit builds to save
taxpayers’ money. Finding and vetting the businesses capable had to be
prioritized. If the businesses failed, the team would’ve lost time and money,
having procured the data rights without effect, and inevitably forced back onto
the contracting table with their prime.
Col. Mark Mocio, program manager for KC-135 and Legacy
Tanker Division chief, stressed that the team has a significant responsibility
to be good stewards of the taxpayer dollar.
“It took a lot of energy, creativity, and upfront planning
to enable this strategy. There’s a lot of responsibility and risk. We have to
be extremely diligent,” the colonel explained.
A program born and bred here at Tinker Air Force Base,
everything has been done in-house.
“Our integrated team of operators, maintainers, engineers,
logisticians, equipment specialists, contracting officers, and program managers
developed the requirements, schedule, cost, and contracts to produce the final
products that our warfighter likes and needs,” Lieutenant Neace said.
This effort supports the installation taking place at the
Oklahoma City Air Logistics Complex. “This Fair Opportunity Notice will also
open up the avenue for foreign military sales,” Mr. Lee said. By cutting down
acquisition time for foreign partners, Group A kits would be accessible for a
competitive price, while saving time on the backend; a win-win.
Seven years after the wheels started turning, the benefits
are finally being reaped. The aircraft has been flown for 60 years, and the
program office is confident this effort will help to ensure its lifespan to
A sophisticated, trained, professional KC-135 workforce
set the precedence. The team was deliberate and intentional, and as a result
was able to perform exceptional market research, identify potential risks,
promote effective competition, and ultimately provide a cost savings of $30.9
million over the life of the program.
“We have an incredible team,” Lt. Neace said,
“multifunctional and multi-generational. Though a different group of
individuals started this program, the success is a testament to our acquisition
leadership, as they seamlessly bring together a major effort with a highly
mobile workforce. It’s been extremely rewarding to see the delivery of this
capability to the warfighter.”
The Block 45 upgrade is the third major avionics upgrade
to the KC-135 fleet. In the Air Force’s transition to the KC-46A, the Block 45
upgrade has allowed its aircraft to remain the backbone for the air refueling
taskforce. The Block 45 team just completed. Low-Rate Initial Production on
Sept. 20 with 36 modified aircraft. The program has now moved into Full-Rate
Production and will no doubt continue to exceed expectations.