The Army’s fast-track method of buying mobile networks for deployed soldiers could be in jeopardy as long as it remains bound by existing procurement regulations, government and industry sources said.
Under a new evaluation system that was launched a year ago, the Army is seeking to buy digital radios, smartphones, portable 3G and 4G networking systems and other wireless technology to equip its combat brigades. The goal is to compress a process that would normally take three to five years into a few months, so technologies don’t become obsolete by the time they reach the battlefield.
The process, known as Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, is the Army’s answer to its decades-old frustration of failing to provide soldiers the latest and greatest communications systems from the consumer market. The first two NIE events occurred last summer and fall at training ranges in Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M. The Army is about to kick off two more NIEs this year.
Hundreds of products have been evaluated, but the Army so far has only purchased systems that already existed — known as “programs of record” — and had been funded before NIE got started.
Suppliers of commercial technologies and traditional military IT vendors have enthusiastically endorsed the NIE as a venue that would offer soldiers who actually use the systems an opportunity to inform buying decisions.
Incumbent vendors and newcomers who have been chasing a share of the Army’s $6 billion-a-year IT market are waiting to see whether the NIE will deliver on its promise to open the market to “emerging” technologies that are not programs of record.
But Army leaders who have been championing the NIE now worry that military procurement regulations and contracting rules will make the fast-track buying process much tougher than they had anticipated.
The number-one question about the NIE is: “What are we going to buy?” asked Richard Cozby, deputy director for systems of systems integration, at the office of Army acquisition, technology and logistics.
The Army is scheduled to equip a brigade in October with improved voice and data communications systems that will be selected based on the results of NIE tests.
Speaking to an audience of contractors at the Soldier Technology 2012 conference in Arlington, Va., Cozby acknowledged that the Defense Department’s rules for funding, testing and acquiring equipment are anathema to the NIE’s compressed schedule.
“A lot of things are being done in parallel: requirements, budget, testing, fielding,” Cozby said. “We are having to spend extra time explaining the process to senior DoD leaders and Congress.”
One of the toughest nuts to crack here is the contracting process. It might take only six months for the Army to evaluate and decide it wants to buy a particular system, but it takes 30 months to award a contract, said Cozby.
A major snag is the possibility that losing contractors will protest NIE-related procurements if they believe the process was not fair. Apprehension about industry protests is one reason why the Army might have difficulties institutionalizing a faster procurement system.
“We are working through the process on how to get the contractual and legal aspects for agile acquisition,” he said. “We want full and open competition but in an agile fashion.”
During an industry day hosted by NIE officials in January, several contractors voiced disappointment about government foot-dragging. “We’re trying to convince senior management that there are contracts at the end of this,” one executive said.
Companies are nervous because they are spending millions of dollars bringing equipment and staff to the desert and demonstrating the hardware for weeks at a time. They worry that the investment might not pay off and want to see the Army prove that programs of record are not sacrosanct and that challengers have a fair shot.
Army spokesman Paul Mehney said NIE leaders are aware of these concerns and take them seriously. But he cautioned that contractors should not expect huge orders, as the Army has shifted its procurement strategy to a “buy fewer, more often” approach. Instead of purchasing massive quantities of a single product, the Army wants to incrementally upgrade the force, one brigade at a time. That means companies will receive smaller orders, but the upside is that more companies get a chance to bite at the apple.
Army officials have reassured vendors that their efforts are not being wasted. Based on the results of last fall’s NIE, known as 12.1, the Army expects to announce “within weeks” that it will be buying new equipment, Mehney told National Defense.
“We’re beginning to solidify the policies,” he said. “But still a lot of questions need to be answered.”
Industry’s complaints about the NIE comes on the heels of far more scathing criticism by the Pentagon’s director of weapons testing and evaluation, J. Michael Gilmore. In his annual report to Congress, Gilmore raised several red flags about the Army’s first evaluation event last summer, called NIE 11.2.
One issue is the cost. Reportedly, NIE 11.2 cost $67 million. Gilmore estimated that comparable tests cost a fraction of that amount, although he noted that most operational tests do not require putting an entire brigade in the field, as was the case in NIE 11.2.
Gilmore also suggested the Army is over-stressing the process by requiring the testing brigade to check out a large number of systems, even when soldiers might not have had enough time to familiarize themselves with the technology. Many of the systems that underwent trials in NIE 11.2 performed redundant functions and overwhelmed the users, said Gilmore’s report.
“The Army should be cautious about inserting too many untried, experimental systems into the NIEs. … Too many systems in an event create problems with data collection.”
Gilmore also cautioned that internal turf battles within the Army could jeopardize the goals of the NIE. The process is overseen by a “triad” of organizations: Army Training and Evaluation Command, Training and Doctrine Command, and officials from Army headquarters’ acquisition office.
“There was at least the appearance during NIE 11.2 that agencies other than ATEC were making test design and execution decisions that ATEC should have been making,” Gilmore wrote. This problem could “become significant in future events” in which programs of record are being evaluated.
Executives from companies that participated in NIE events last year said in interviews that they heartily support the Army’s campaign to expedite the procurement cycle and open the game to new industry players.
Wayne Eagleson, general manager of LGS Innovations, said the NIE is a “great opportunity to demonstrate technology.” LGS is offering a mobile 4G network. “The NIE is an agile process. But it still takes quite a bit of time to evaluate the equipment, and put a procurement together.”
One of the problems is that consumer technology such as 4G is still not broadly accepted by the military because of security concerns, Eagleson said.
Some NIE participants have become skeptical that the Army, in part to blame by the procurement rules but also because of an entrenched culture, is willing to let go of some of its programs of record if a better alternative pops up during NIE tests.
From a political standpoint, Army procurement officials want to avoid the negative publicity that follows program-of-record cancellations. Since the first NIE, the Army has terminated high-profile projects such as the ground mobile radio, or GMR, that had been in development for a decade at a cost of $6 billion, as part of the Joint Tactical Radio System. It also axed the “Nett Warrior” soldier mobile network program that also had been in the works for years.
Several companies now regard the handheld variant of the JTRS, known as the Rifleman Radio, as the next program that the Army should consider opening up to non-incumbent suppliers.
The Rifleman Radio, made by General Dynamics C4 Systems, has been touted by Army officials as a “success story” and was deployed recently with the 75th Ranger Regiment. But in upcoming NIEs, suppliers of mobile networking systems will seek to dethrone Rifleman Radio. Competitors claim that that radio fails to deliver on one major feature: high-speed data transfer capacity so soldiers can watch streaming video on smartphones.
Contractors said the Rifleman Radio is an example of how the NIE has exposed a mismatch between the users’ requirements for streaming video and the ability of the network to transport data.
Suppliers of competing mobile networks worry that the Army might be under political pressure to showcase the Rifleman Radio as a JTRS “good news” story and to justify the billions of dollars already invested in it.
Mehney, the Army spokesman, said the Rifleman Radio has received glowing reviews during the first two NIEs and the Army plans to buy 6,000 from General Dynamics.
Regardless, competitors argue, sticking with a radio knowing that there might be cheaper and better alternatives goes against the spirit of NIE. They point out that programs of record such as JTRS have performance specs that were set a decade ago, before the Army realized that full motion video on a handheld device was a big advantage in combat.
The next test event, 12.2 is scheduled to start in April. Most of the focus will be on another program of record, the Warfighter Information Network Tactical, or WIN-T.
Contractors are hopeful that the following NIE later this year, 13.1, will be more open to new technologies that could challenge programs of record.
One of the most highly anticipated systems to be tested at 13.1 is a new high-bandwidth “mid-tier networking vehicular radio” that would replace the much-maligned GMR. BAE Systems and Northrop Grumman-led teams are expected to compete.
Northrop also is offering an alternative to the Rifleman Radio — an advanced meshnet wireless network.
Bill Clingempeel, director of strategy and technology for Northrop Grumman’s battle management business, said the company’s meshnet is about one-third the cost of the current program of record and boasts an increase in data throughput to the soldier by a factor of 20.
Another potential challenger to replace the GMR is a mobile radio wideband network developed by Raytheon Network Centric Systems with funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
Jeff Miller, director of Raytheon’s tactical communications systems business, said the company will demonstrate that its mobile net, called “maingate,” can connect up to 30 network nodes, which is a significantly larger reach than what other radios offer.
“The more nodes the more robust the network,” said Miller.
Soon after the Army cancelled the GMR system, it replaced it with an interim radio, the AN/PRC-117-G made by Harris RF Communications.
Companies vying for the GMR business are jockeying to beat Harris’ radio, with which the Army chose to equip eight brigades.
“We have 10 times the throughput capacity” of the 117-G, Miller said. “The 117-G could not scale up to 30 nodes,” he said. “Our message to the Army is that the systems that are deployed today do not have the throughput capacity to deliver the data, voice, video to the edge that’s needed.”
Dennis C. Moran, Harris RF vice president, said the beauty of the NIE is that companies have to actually deliver on their promises. “I understand that our industry partners want to disparage us a little bit,” he said in an interview. Moran said the company is prepared to compete under whatever rules the Army sets. Harris also expects to pitch an alternative to the Rifleman Radio. “We have been told that they desire competition in all JTRS platforms,” said Moran, “They will open the field.”
Moran, a retired Army major general, echoed other industry executives’ comments about vendors becoming a bit frustrated by the hiccups experienced in NIEs so far. “But as an old Army guy, I can say that the institution of the Army is adjusting to the NIE process so everybody needs to show a little patience.”