ABERDEEN TEST CENTER, Md. — Program managers for the $60 million joint Army-Marine Corps program to build a new vehicle to replace the aging humvee rolled out three new prototypes here recently and put them through the paces on a hilly test track in the Maryland woods.
But it was more than a debut for the hopeful joint light tactical vehicle vendors. The trucks were high-profile examples of the competitive prototyping movement, a congressionally mandated method of acquiring technology that proponents say will reduce cost overruns and lessen the risk of failure for military hardware development programs.
It could be another five years before the JLTV vehicles begin to be produced in large quantities, and competitive prototyping — at least for trucks — is proven to be a success or not. Observers are wondering if this is truly a solution to the Defense Department’s well-known acquisition woes, or if it’s just a flavor of the month. There are also concerns that the per-unit cost of the trucks will be too high.
Meanwhile, JLTV program managers said the new strategy is working well so far. They are aware that the process for the way the trucks are being developed is being watched as closely as the vehicles themselves.
“I think this is kind of the poster child” for competitive prototyping, said Dean Johnson, the JLTV deputy program manager and the Marine Corps’ representative on the program. “Competition is a wonderful thing. It is the American way.”
Three vendors are providing a series of prototype vehicles — BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and General Tactical Vehicles, which is a consortium of AM General and General Dynamics Land Systems.
Army and Marine Corps officials will run tests on the 21 variations of vehicles they have received, collect performance, protection and payload data, and then use what they learn to refine their requirements.
After that process is finished, there will be an open competition to select participants in the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) phase. Two vendors will be selected for that contract. They may or may not be one of the three who provided the prototype vehicles.
“As we get those results from that testing, we’ll feed that back into our requirements and say, ‘OK, did we get it right? Or did we ask for a bridge too far in the requirements?’” said Army Lt. Col. Wolfgang Petermann, JLTV program manager.
“Contractors are helping us inform our requirements and then anybody can compete,” he added.
“Competitive prototyping is working,” Petermann told National Defense. All three manufacturers delivered their vehicles on time and on budget. “And we’re meeting our performance requirements.”
In one example, all three vehicles are exceeding the miles-per-gallon expectations. During the next phase, the program can raise the bar as far as fuel efficiency, Petermann said.
In a typical technology development phase, acquisition managers would be running tests on individual components. It has skipped ahead, and the program is now putting the vehicles through the paces as a system, he noted.
The buzzwords are “gaining knowledge” and “reducing risk.”
The theory is that program managers are learning how much of the so-called iron triangle — performance, protection and payload — they can get out of the trucks. Forcing the manufacturers to use, reliable, proven technologies reduces the risk that new and untested components might insert into the program.
“Our requirement is mature technology,” Petermann said. “What technology industry decides to bring, that is up to them. As long as you can meet all of our requirements, we won’t direct them to a specific” component.
Whether the acquisition community and contractors believe that competitive prototyping is the future is currently not up for debate. It’s the law of the land.
The Weapons System Acquisition Reform Act passed in 2009 requires that prototypes be produced for major weapons acquisition programs prior to Milestone B, which is the point where independent review boards must give a thumbs up or thumbs down to a program before it can proceed to the engineering and manufacturing development phase. The law allows the services to request waivers for some programs, though.
“We have gone a step further … and taken a whole integrated system look so we can further reduce risk for the program as it goes into the EMD phase,” Petermann said.
Don E. Howe, senior director of General Tactical Vehicles, said he has been through many acquisition programs as a vendor, but never anything like competitive prototyping.
“They don’t want to spend a lot of time finding out that things can’t be done,” he said of the Army and Marine Corps.
The process has been open so far, he said.
“We have shared with them the good news, and we have shared with them the bad. Because when you are developing one of these products from scratch, trying to fit in all the different requirements, balance that iron triangle, it’s tough sledding, let me tell you. The Army knows that and the Marine Corps knows that,” he said.
Lockheed Martin and BAE Systems declined to be interviewed on the competitive prototyping process.
To facilitate communications, the program has an integrated product team for each vendor so they know who to go to when they have concerns and questions. Each team has a manager, a test and evaluation specialist, a command, control, communications, computer, intelligence (C4I) expert and a Marine Corps representative.
They report to the program manager what is and isn’t working, and good ideas that can be shared with other teams. They can determine where one team might be struggling and let them know how the other two teams are approaching the problem. This also makes for better “firewalling,” so proprietary information can be protected, said Chris Brouwer, C4I chief on the program.
Nancy Spruill, director of acquisition resources and analysis at the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that competitive prototyping in JLTV program is “already working.”
“We are able to conduct more effective developmental testing, improve the design solution, and increase our confidence in the system cost estimates,” she said in a hearing that investigated the first year of the acquisition reform act.
Key will be not overburdening the process with excessive reviews, she added. Prior to the EMD phase, one independent review must certify that the technologies in the JLTV program are mature enough to proceed.
“The lead time to design and deliver capability is already too long. As a result, we intend to ensure that process agility in not undermined with more ‘checkers’ than those being ‘checked,’” she said.
Johnson said he has heard criticism that competitive prototyping may add time to the process. The current tests will last one year through May 2011. Using the data gathered, a new request for proposals will be issued in June 2011, and two vendors will be selected in December for the EMD phase. That will last two years. Officials hope to reach a Milestone C decision, where an independent review board makes a decision whether the trucks can enter full-rate production, in 2013. If JLTV passes that review, production would begin in 2015.
“Some would say that [competitive prototyping] adds time to the program length. I would argue that what you do on the front end saves you time on the back end,” Johnson said.
The method has the endorsement of the Government Accountability Office. Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and sourcing management at GAO, said requiring programs to invest more time and resources up front, refining concepts through early systems engineering, and developing technologies and prototypes before starting systems integration is in line with the good practices GAO has been recommending for years.
The wild card is interference, he warned.
Programs that have pursued “risky and unexecutable” acquisition strategies have won funding in the past. Such programs must be denied funding before they begin, he said.
“This will require sustained leadership from the secretary of defense, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and the military services and the cooperation of support of Congress,” Sullivan said.
At this stage, competitive prototyping could be a misnomer, given that the program managers say that after the current phase, the competition will be opened up again to select two vehicles for the engineering phase. And the winners of that contract may or may not be one of the three testing their trucks.
How realistic is it that BAE, Lockheed Martin or General Tactical Vehicles will be bypassed for other manufacturers? There were four other teams who competed to take part in the technology development phase, but lost out. They could potentially step in.
“Anything is possible. I would never say never,” said Nathaniel H. Sledge Jr., a retired Army colonel and former program manager.
“They’re hedging their bets saying that they don’t have to buy any of them. That’s true,” he continued. “But why would you go through all of this if you don’t have an intention to eventually purchase one of these trucks? That would be an expensive science or research project.”
If competitive prototyping in the technology development phase is only about refining requirements, then he questioned its value.
“If that’s their sole reason, it’s not sufficient because that’s a waste of money,” he said. “You can refine your requirements by collecting data in the field in war theaters.” Operators can be asked what they think needs to be added to the next generation of vehicles.
“But you do find out the art of the possible when you do these tests because some of the guys in the field ask for things that may not be realistic,” Sledge noted.
Competitive prototyping has been tried in the past, although the JLTV is the largest program to attempt it so far, he added.
At the end of the day, the process is supposed to be more efficient, and therefore, save taxpayers money.
However, there is a risk that the program may deliver a vehicle that has a per-unit cost that is too expensive. The Army intends to purchase roughly 55,000 vehicles, although that number is still being debated within the service. The Marine Corps’ number has been steady at 5,500. The prototypes delivered more closely resemble the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles that were rushed into the field during the Iraq war, than the humvees they are intended to replace. The MRAPs provided the protection needed, but were expensive, with some models costing as much as $800,000. Up-armored humvees are in the $150,000 range.
We are “evolving it into something that is achievable, affordable, and in the end gives us a balance between all the requirements that we are trying to trade against one another,” said Johnson.
However, how much capability the two services want to spend on each vehicle is for them to decide, he added.
“We’re really trying to make this program affordable … but we don’t in the program office make those trades,” Johnson said. JLTV program managers inform the Marine Corps and Army how much it will cost to add a certain feature. It will be up to their “customers” on how much they want to pay.
Sullivan warned House members that this has been a pitfall in the past. The Pentagon has taken steps to improve its rigor in providing reliable cost estimates, but “more independence, methodical rigor, and better information about risk areas like technology will make estimates more realistic,” he said.
However, “realism is compromised as the competition for funding encourages programs to appear more affordable,” he added.
Program officials hope to also save some development funding through an international partnership. Australia has chipped in and additional $30 million and contributed three personnel to the current development phase.
The Australian government is on its own fact-finding mission, explained Lt. Col. Robin Petersen, one of the three staff members sent over.
Australia entered the program to seek data, schedule and cost estimates. Like the Defense Department, there has been no decision whether it will proceed with the program. And like the U.S government, there is no commitment to buy any of the vehicles from the three vendors.
“We came up with very similar requirements ... that’s why we looked at what the U.S. is doing,” he said.
“We are fighting the same fights. We are encountering the same threats and facing the same issues that the U.S Army faces in terms of the JTLV program,” he added. The Australian army uses C-130s, and CH-47Fs as well, so has the same mobility requirements.
There are political sensitivities as far as buying from foreign manufacturers, he said. He named three manufacturers capable of doing the work in Australia, all of them subsidiaries of international vehicle manufacturers.
“Australian taxpayers are also very sensitive to where they spend Australian money,” Petersen said.
After the current testing phase is finished, there will be a decision as to whether the Australian armed forces want to continue in the cooperative agreement, or go its own way.
Australia will receive seven right-hand drive prototypes from the three vendors, which will be shipped to proving grounds in that nation. They will perform about 15,000 miles of testing there, and that data will be shared with the U.S. program. JLTV program managers can use the three personnel however they see fit, Petersen said.
Johnson said the process is working.
“I’ve been in the business for a long time. And it is working. It is working for us and we will press forward into a fairly low risk EMD phase,” he said.