The Army’s antiquated ways of buying new equipment are depriving soldiers of the latest technology and making it more difficult for them to do their jobs, says Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli.
A former commander of the 1st Cavalry Division and Multi-National Corps Iraq, Chiarelli has been a vocal critic of the Army’s procurement system. He is particularly frustrated by the inability of the Army to grab technology from the open market and make it available to soldiers quickly, at least before it becomes obsolete.
“We have to find better ways to keep up with technology. It doesn’t do us any good to have a procurement cycle that takes 10 to 15 years,” he tells National Defense.
“If our procurement system were doing the iPhone, we’d still be five to seven years away from putting the first one on the market,” he says.
Chiarelli’s own experience using the iPhone stands in painful contrast to how technology is acquired and employed in the Army.
“I’ve had three models of the iPhone, and each one has been better, with more features, and each costs less than the previous one,” he says. The Army’s radios, by comparison, take years to develop and the newer models come with staggering price tags. When military radios need upgrades, the Army pays millions of dollars for new software. Under the iPhone business model, users download low-cost or free applications that were developed by independent vendors. Such ability to “get the things you need” fast is sorely lacking in the military, Chiarelli says. “We have to be better at being able to reach out, harness technology and get it into the hands of our soldiers quickly,” he says. “We have a procurement system that is exceedingly slow. We have to find a way, with technologies changing so quickly, to speed up our procurement process, to be more nimble.”
Technology, no matter how dazzling, is not useful to the Army if it’s not affordable and can’t be fielded to all deployed troops. The Defense Department confronts that dilemma as it develops a state-of-the-art “joint tactical radio system” to replace older radios. The JTRS radios are far more sophisticated than the previous devices, but cost thousands of dollars (some as much as tens of thousands) apiece, which will make it difficult for the Army to buy in large quantities for every soldier.
Chiarelli cautions that he’s far from suggesting that the iPhone would solve the Army’s IT challenges. Two major drawbacks in the iPhone are that it’s not secure for military use and, like all cell phones, cannot operate in remote areas outside the reach of the network.
“I’m not saying the iPhone is the solution to our problems,” says Chiarelli. It’s the business model that the Army should be looking at. “Could you come up with a secure hand-held device, not too much unlike the iPhone?” Instead of buying large expensive radios, the Army could buy smaller less costly devices, use them for two to three years, toss them and get another version only with better software and security with military applications,” he says. “Those are the things that excite me.”
Some of the cell phone technology Chiarelli wants to see in the Army is being pursued by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Air Force Research Laboratory. A project called “wireless network after next” has promise, he says. The goal is to incorporate inexpensive commercial parts to build networked handheld radios that can easily be upgraded with new software. A prototype network currently is being tested.
Chiarelli also is overseeing a wide-ranging program to design a new combat vehicle for the Army that would replace the now defunct Future Combat Systems. He hosted a “blue ribbon” panel this summer to garner ideas from experts including non-commissioned officers, academics, think tank officials and others who typically would not be asked to participate in the Army’s weapons “requirements” process.
“It was enlightening for the Army,” says Chiarelli. “It was our opportunity to open up the process.” He personally is reading 21 papers with proposed technologies for Army vehicles. He is particularly enthusiastic about the proposals that focused on how to improve the survivability of vehicles against explosives and missile attacks.
The modernization of the Army is one of many topics on Chiarelli’s agenda. In an August interview, he discussed some of his other priorities:
Stress in the force is one of his major concerns. There are not enough soldiers to fill Iraq and Afghanistan rotations and give troops a two-year break between deployments, as the Defense Department promised it would. The Army is “not close” to being able to give soldiers that two-year “dwell time” at home, says Chiarelli. “It’s become a math problem. Too much demand, and only so many soldiers … I hope demand goes down, so we’ll see dwell times increase.” The Pentagon authorized the addition of 22,000 soldiers, but that is only a temporary boost to fill out existing formations, says Chiarelli. “We won’t create a single new battalion, platoon or company,” he says. “We have more soldiers deployed now than we did at the height of the Iraq surge.”
The Army also is under pressure to train more “advisory brigades” to assist Iraqi and Afghan commanders. To that end, the Army is planning to add more officers to existing brigades. The Army wants advisory organizations to remain combat brigades rather than become specialized units, says Chiarelli. “We believe that as much as we can keep the force from specialization the better off we’ll be,” he says. “The brigade combat team is now the centerpiece formation.” The brigade is versatile and can be augmented with field grade officers for advisory missions, he says.
“The skills you’re looking for in an advisory brigade are from operations officers” who are trained for combat, he says. “Formations can be pulled out from a BCT and used in advisory missions when you don’t need a full brigade,” says Chiarelli.