Net-centric on the cheap

The Defense Department's rapid-fire acquisition and evaluation program, designed to quickly field network-centric warfare applications, has met the budget ax.

DOD officials had requested $10 million for 12 Rapid Acquisition Incentive—Net Centricity (RAI-NC) pilot programs. They had even announced which 12 programs would be funded, but in the final version of the Defense appropriations bill, which President Bush signed last November, lawmakers slashed that amount by 67 percent.

Pentagon officials, in turn, decided to withhold an additional $650,000, although program officials are not sure why. The net result: Eight of the pilots have been scrapped, and the four that remain must split $2.65 million.

Defense officials launched the RAI-NC program last May to develop products and services that support the Pentagon's efforts to use information networks to transform military operations. The idea is to adapt commercial technology and procurement practices to shorten the time it takes to develop and field systems.

Jim Mulder, RAI-NC manager for DOD's Office of the Chief Information Officer, said he thinks some things slipped through the cracks and should have been funded at a higher level.

"I don't think it's a reflection on the validity or value of a pilot, but rather a lack of communication that led to the funding getting cut," he said. "That means the onus is even harder on me to produce [results] with the four pilots that will go forward and to get the most out of the dollars we are spending."

The programs were slated to receive $10 million in fiscal 2004 and $20 million in subsequent years. Mulder said he was concerned at first that cutting the money in the first year could have ramifications in the following years.

"But I am encouraged that, by all appearances, the full $20 million will still be included for fiscal 2005," he said. "There is no indication right now that they are going to cut the second year at all."

The pilot spending comes from the DOD CIO's fiscal 2004 budget, which was allotted to support the department's net-centricity efforts.

The projects will advance principles of net-centric warfare, produce proof-of-concept examples and provide results applicable departmentwide, said the department's CIO John Stenbit, in an October 2003 memo issued to many in the military's upper echelons.

The four projects chosen came from a field of about 120 submissions, according to the Navy's eBusiness Operations Office, which was selected last June to spearhead the program.

"If any of the pilots reduce cycle time or reduce the cost of DOD support activities, thus enabling better, quicker support to the warfighter, then the pilot initiative will have been successful," said Bill Price, Navy eBusiness pilot program manager. "Our hope is that 100 percent of the pilots will prove successful and are implemented. However, even unsuccessful pilots prove valuable, as lessons learned are captured prior to potential full-scale implementation."

Paul Brubaker, chief marketing officer at SI International and former deputy CIO at DOD, doesn't think the amount of money invested in the projects shows any solid commitment by agency officials to see them through to the end.

"If they can get something out of the pilots, God bless them," he said. "But they need to add zeros behind this to make it real. For $10 million or $12 million, they might be able to try one of these pilots in a meaningful way, but not all of them."

Karen Meloy, deputy commander of the Navy eBusiness Operations Office, disagrees, saying the important factor is not how much money is spent, but rather how the money is spent.

"I'm not in a position where I can decide where DOD makes its funding decisions, but I'm comfortable DOD has allocated the proper amount of funds for these pilots," she said. "I think it's a credit to DOD that they are making an investment in piloting."

Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., said the

projects have their merits, but DOD specifications could preclude the agency from testing many commercial technologies.

"I think DOD is trying to do the right thing, but I'm not sure a handful of small pilot projects is the way to get there," Suss said.

Pilot solicitations for next year will begin in the spring. Price hopes to complete pilot selections by late summer and begin the next round of projects in early fiscal 2005.

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