At issue is the need to provide officers with better simulations for battle-command and other forms of leadership training.
Although each service owns an extensive array of computer war-gaming systems, the Defense Department has been pushing them to consolidate their simulations into a "joint" rather than service-specific setup.
In 1994, the Pentagon launched the Joint Simulation System program, which was aimed at combining land, air and maritime simulations into a single digital environment. A decade, and a billion dollars later, JSIMS failed to accomplish that goal. The program was plagued by cost overruns, delays and overall poor performance. Its funding stream dried up in 2004.
Officials at the office of the secretary of defense were directed more than a year ago to assess the state of the technology and report back with recommendations on how the Defense Department should fund and manage joint simulations programs. The study, titled, "Training Capabilities Analysis of Alternatives," was completed in August. It concluded that, rather than start a new program to replace JSIMS, the Defense Department should backtrack and reassess its requirements for joint-simulation systems.
The report noted: "Improving joint training is a complex problem, and all issues could not be resolved within the time and resources allotted for conducting the training capabilities analysis of alternatives."
Representatives from the office of the deputy undersecretary of defense for readiness, Paul Mayberry, and officials from U.S. Joint Forces Command were in charge of the study. The goal was to make an "assessment of joint service training with an eye to coming up with cost effective methods to accomplish that training," said Fred Hartman, one of the study's directors.
"The nature of our study changed from what people had anticipated-go back and figure out how to do another JSIMS program-to wisely take a step back and look at training on a larger perspective, try to find cost effective methods to solve the current gaps in training," Hartman told National Defense.
Joint simulations are not as complex from a technology standpoint as they are difficult to manage and oversee, the study concluded.
JSIMS serves as a cautionary tale, Hartman said. "It became a large integration effort that exceeded our technical expectations." By the time the program was cancelled, engineers were trying to link more than 30 different families of simulations that had not been designed to be interoperable.
"Interfacing complex simulations of this type is very challenging. You have many entities that have to operate in a single simulation," said Alfred Ferrari, vice president of Northrop Grumman technical services unit.
Despite the demise of JSIMS, he said, the Defense Department will continue to focus on joint simulations. But no matter how the Pentagon decides to go about buying new technologies, future systems will be based largely on existing "legacy" simulations and will require the integration of disparate elements into a single network.
JSIMS was a "management nightmare . with lots of chiefs and no one in total control of the program," said Daniel E. Gardner, director of readiness and training policy at the Defense Department.
Future programs will follow a different management model and will be more adaptable to rapid advances in technology and to new ideas from non-traditional commercial vendors, Hartman said.
The advice he received from business experts was that the problem with joint simulations does not rest on technology, but rather on "understanding who your customer is and building a flexible acquisition process" that allows current vendors and new players from the commercial sector to participate.
The misperception among commercial suppliers and small businesses is that the military simulation industry is a closed community of "big guys" who win the large contracts, Hartman said. "Industry is not a homogeneous body."
To gain the benefits of the latest technology, the Defense Department should work not only with incumbent Pentagon contractors but also with niche vendors that provide off-the-shelf products and develop simulations for the entertainment consumer market.
The Defense Department's ability to successfully develop and deploy joint simulations will be tested, pending budget negotiations, under a three-year pilot program beginning in fiscal year 2006, said Hartman.
The plan is to tackle a specific "training problem," he said. Most likely, it will be joint close-air support. JCAS was identified as a training shortfall that military commanders want addressed.
"We would try to do a more commercial management scheme and have people competing for different pieces, rather than have one company building all the simulations," explained Hartman. "The requirements would be set jointly." The end product may be some sort of JCAS simulator, plus additional models embedded in existing systems.
The pilot program will allow the Defense Department to iron out the wrinkles typically encountered in a new procurement and to figure out how to attract the best technologies from vendors who normally don't bid on military programs.
"The current acquisition system locks out people that potentially could provide valuable tools and technology," said Hartman. "Until we find a better way to conduct our acquisitions, we won't be able to solve that problem."
The Training Capabilities report also recommended that the Defense Department consider the intelligence agencies as part of the customer base for training systems. "Whereas intelligence has served in the past more as a training aid to the war fighters, the intelligence community must now be made an integral part of the training audience."