New report reveals Army's troubled IT acquisition program

industry day for NIE

An industry day the Army hosted in 2012, at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, as part of its Network Integration Evaluation program. (Army photo)

The Army's Network Integration Evaluation program, under way since 2011, has been instrumental in getting network capabilities to troops on the ground by bringing together industry and the Defense Department. Gathering twice a year at Ft. Bliss, Texas, vendors, soldiers and officials identify gaps and examine potential solutions that ideally are fast-tracked into the combat theater.

But it turns out that the mission is not so simple. Instead, technologies that perform poorly in developmental testing are proceeding into operational testing and even into the field, while better options remain shelved amid acquisition struggles. NIE's schedule-driven approach hamstrings adequate preparations, and despite five NIEs under the Army's belt, there still are no good metrics to evaluate the entire tactical network's performance.

The troubles surface in a new Government Accountability Office report issued Aug. 22. The report's writers say the Army is "not taking full advantage of the potential knowledge that could be gained from the NIEs and some resulting Army decisions are at odds with knowledge accumulated during the NIEs."

Among those decisions are plans to move forward with several systems despite poor performance in developmental testing, including tactical network WIN-T increment 2, JTRS Manpack and JTRS Rifleman tactical radios and NettWarrior, a combat situational awareness system.

In both JTRS systems, testers in the development phase recommended against proceeding to operational testing, but the Army moved ahead anyway, in some cases reducing requirements and reclassifying participation as limited user or customer tests.

"Fielding individual systems that have done poorly during operational tests carries risk of less-than-optimal performance, with the potential of costly fixes after fielding and increased operating and sustainment costs," the report noted. "Moreover, performance and reliability issues of individual systems could be magnified when these systems become part of an integrated network."

To alleviate the problem, the GAO recommended that network systems from major defense acquisition programs obtain certification of readiness to move into operational testing – a stipulation that Alan Shaffer, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, said could take away flexibility.

The GAO also expressed concerns that the Army's schedule-driven approach to NIE exercises "elevates meeting a schedule above adequately preparing systems to achieve success in operational testing," a risky issue that "can result in fielding systems that do not provide adequate utility for soldiers and require costly and time-consuming modification in theater."

However, Army officials said that nonetheless, the equipment addresses critical shortfalls and needs on the ground that otherwise may not be met.

"For example, most deployed units previously had no or very limited capabilities other than voice communications. Consequently, the Army believes it is urgent to modernize deploying units as quickly as possible," the report noted.

Another issue raised was the participation of industry in NIE events, which hinge on the involvement of the private sector. With vendors footing their own bill – which can be upwards of $250,000 – and few systems being bought, GAO said it is a very real concern that the private sector could in the future decide not to participate.

Despite the fact that more than 120 systems under evaluation – those not already part of a program or in development – received positive reviews, the Army has purchased only three to date. This is attributed to the fact that the Army has no strategy for rapid acquisition to immediately address capability gaps, a problem the Army blames on "a lack of well-defined requirements for the network system (instead of the more general capability gaps); a lack of funding; and lengthy time frames needed to complete the competitive procurement process."

Army officials hope to address the acquisition issue with a two-pronged approach that involves aligning desired systems under evaluation with existing requirements and programs of record or making better use of directed, or urgent, requirements. The other half of the approach involves combining the use of sources-sought announcements and requests for proposals that improve requirements and culminate in indefinite-delivery, indefinite quantity contract awards.

"With two NIEs per year, the Army will continue to use a sources-sought notice to solicit government and industry solutions to broadly defined capability gaps and will assess those solutions during a NIE," the report stated. "Then, the Army will use lessons learned and soldier feedback from the first NIE to validate and refine the requirement and issue a request for proposal for participation in a future NIE."

About the Author

Amber Corrin is a former staff writer for FCW and Defense Systems.


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