Speed of war sprints past speed of traditional DOD acquisition

When warfighters need technology to support their field maneuvers, a years-long wait for the devices becomes unacceptable

It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good, according to the old saying, and that’s certainly true of the changes being called for because of tightening defense budgets. Combined with the increasing need to meet modern asymmetrical threats and an agile enemy, the push to overhaul the military’s ancient acquisition process has become critical.

That should bring good results to warfighters, who have had to struggle in the past with technology that has been slow to arrive as the results of years, sometimes decades, of long development processes. Particularly in the last decade, this has resulted in soldiers being saddled with IT and other technology that has been generations behind what they could buy commercially.

So, instead of the military-specific requirements that drove the acquisition process, and also resulted in hugely expensive development programs and technology that often didn’t work well, the new approach is to depend more on commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) products and the kind of “it just works” maturity that brings with it.

Heidi Shyu, Acting Assistant Secretary of the Army -- Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, told the 2011 Association of the U.S. Army Annual Meeting and Exposition held last October that things really changed after the terrorist attacks in 2001, and the threat the U.S. faced also veered dramatically away from the historical large, nation versus nation war.

“In order to be more agile, we know we need to emphasize mature technology and less cost,” Shyu said. “Our focus is to allow industry to help us determine what the requirements need to be.”

The Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercises are a prime example of that approach. By putting a mix of technologies into the hands of combat soldiers, who test them under realistic combat situations, the goal is to sort out more quickly what works and what doesn’t and to come up with a set of system needs that industry can work with on an ongoing basis.

"If you look at the value of the NIE for the Army, it's really about us getting our hands around the requirements, how to resource them, and then how to make it work in an operationally relevant environment," to provide better field systems that soldiers use on the battlefield, Lt. Gen. William Phillips, principal military deputy for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, said at the conference.

The goal is to spiral new technologies down to soldiers no less than every two years, and to make sure that whatever systems are introduced work with what has gone before.

The question for the Army is to find a better way to exploit COTS capabilities and integrate them with whatever else is happening on the battlefield as opposed to creating them out of whole cloth and, in the process, move them through much shorter development loops as those capabilities are created.

If the focus is on the dismounted soldier, you can get an initial capability out in 18 months to 24 months and start fielding it to the first six brigades, said Northrop Grumman’s Joe Taylor.

“At the same time, whatever NIE you are in then would be looking at the next level of software, handhelds or meshnets,” he said. “As long as you ensure backwards compatibility, there’s no reason at Brigade 7 that you can’t start fielding the next generation of technologies that would fight alongside what’s already out there.”

That will force defense suppliers such as Northrop Grumman to deal with a more volatile business case, he said, and it does complicate budget planning compared with  the old acquisition process. But it will free companies to exploit developments taking place now in ways that weren’t open to them in the past, he said.

“We won’t have that 10-year certainty but, on the other hand, if you didn’t have that long-term contract then opportunities were closed off to you,” Taylor said. “This way, it may actually open up the opportunity space.”

And that will make the entire process more competitive. It’s that competition that the Army intends will provide a regular supply of innovative, COTS-based solutions that the dismounted soldier – so often an afterthought in the past – will be able to use as the new focus of networked warfighting.

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