Army Seeks to Quiet Skeptics As it Tries New Acquisition Strategy

By Stew Magnuson
One year after Defense Secretary Robert Gates canceled the Army’s Future Combat Systems program, service leaders say they are moving forward with a new acquisition regime.

“We believe that change in the armed forces generally, and change in our Army specifically, has to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Vane, deputy commanding general and futures director of the Army Capabilities and Integration Center.

“Affordable modernization” was the slogan introduced at the Association for the United States Army winter conference in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.  

The announcement came at a time when the service is taking on several initiatives. It is working its way through a portfolio review of all major programs to ensure that it is purchasing new systems in appropriate quantities and with the right capabilities.  

Meanwhile, it has embarked on a seven-year process to build a new ground combat vehicle. It is also attempting to field a handful of legacy soldier technologies from the failed FCS program, but is having mixed results. The Army must also permanently integrate mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles into its brigades, as well as new communication devices such as the joint tactical radio system.

Simply put, the Army has a lot on its plate.

Army Secretary John McHugh told Washington, D.C.-based reporters: “I think the Army has a significant challenge to do a better job on its modernization efforts.”

The strategy seeks to end drawn out development cycles. To modernize equipment, upgrades will be ongoing and improvements are to be made incrementally in two-year cycles, officials said. That’s not to say a new helicopter would be designed and fielded within two years. But new capabilities might be integrated on existing platforms in shorter time spans.

“Army modernization is an open book right now. There are a lot of blank pages to fill in the next 12 or 18 months,” Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, director of the future force directorate at the Army’s training and doctrine command, said at the National Defense Industrial Association ground robotics conference in Miami.

Only one year before, as FCS cancellation speculation persisted, Army officials argued that the family of combat vehicles, small unit equipment and the network that tied them all together was necessary for the service to move forward and modernize.

Now, they take subtle jabs at the program and take pains to distance new programs from Future Combat Systems. “It’s more than just the leftovers of FCS,” Walker said of the enhanced early brigade combat system — the six technologies that survived the doomed program.

Vice Chief of the Army Gen. Peter Chiarelli, hours after a request for proposals document was released to industry for the new ground combat vehicle, told AUSA attendees that it was “not FCS warmed over.”

Vane said, “In the 90s, many believed we would be able to leap ahead in terms of our military capability.” After eight years of war, the Army has concluded that this wholesale approach to change was not reasonable, he said.

To frequently refresh technologies, the Army will “field less, more often,” Vane said. Requirement documents will be produced more quickly. Soldiers will try out new equipment earlier in the development cycle. The service will “be happy with 70 percent solutions.” Encounters with enemies will inform requirements, he added, while describing a constant cycle of learning and adapting.

Two-year cycles are “essential for our Army and will allow us to take better advantage of  … technologies, particularly in the area of information technology,” Vane said.

IT products change more rapidly than almost any other piece of equipment the Army purchases, said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sorenson, Army chief information officer. “We can’t continue to buy IT like a tank,” he said at the AUSA conference. The service will have to do a better job of leveraging the commercial information technology sector, he added.

Lt. Gen. Robert Lennox, Army deputy chief of staff for programs, said the office of the secretary of defense is taking a wait-and-see stance when it comes to this new acquisition strategy.

“We’ve got some challenges, but I think it’s absolutely the right path,” he said.
Rickey Smith, director of the Army capabilities integration center, said “affordable modernization” refers to the service living within its means and being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.

“That ‘affordable’ word isn’t just a bumper sticker,” he said. “It really is going to drive, or already is driving, our approach,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the AUSA conference.

The Army will have to overcome skeptics in Congress. At a recent hearing of the House Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on air and land forces, lawmakers questioned the wisdom of proceeding with the fielding of legacy FCS systems when recent tests showed that all six of the technologies had serious shortcomings. They also peppered Army officials with FCS post-mortem questions.

The integrated brigade combat team (ICBT) modernization program includes several gadgets first developed as part of FCS that are designed to assist small units. They have been in development since the beginning of the FCS program in 2003, and were touted for years as the first “spin out” technologies. With the Army eager to show that the FCS program could make an impact in Iraq, officials set several dates when they said the items would reach the field.

The surviving FCS technologies — known as the early infantry brigade increment 1 — include: a tactical unattended ground sensor; urban unattended ground sensor, the class I unmanned aerial vehicle; the small unmanned ground vehicle; a non-line-of-sight launch system; and, a network integration kit that is designed to tie the sensors in these technologies together.

Some of its components performed “well below” what was expected in a limited user test, said J. Michael Gilmore, director of operational test and evaluation at the office of the secretary of defense.

“All of the systems have notable performance deficiencies,” said Gilmore at the House hearing. A second limited user test is scheduled for this fall. Gilmore said it would be “very challenging” to correct the shortcomings in the systems before that time.

Subcommittee Chairman Adam Smith, D-Wash., repeatedly interrupted witnesses and asked why the Army would ask for an additional $600 million in the fiscal year 2011 budget request on top of the $400 million allocated this year if the technologies were not ready to go into production.

Gilmore said that, as a test-and-evaluation official, it was not his place to comment. He felt free to estimate, however, that the fixes may take up to two years.

Lt. Gen. William N. Phillips, military deputy to the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, technology and logistics, said getting the technology fielded as quickly as possible comes at the direction of OSD. “Each item may not be as mature as the other items,” he said.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Ashton Carter approved low-initial production lots of increment one. This, “despite having acknowledged that the systems and networks were immature, unreliable and not performing as required,” said Michael Sullivan, director of acquisition and outsourcing at the Government Accountability Office. “It’s too early and too risky” to proceed with increment one, he said.

“You do have to take some risk, I do recognize that,” Rep. Smith said. “We want to get this stuff in the field in order for our troops to have what they need.” But he questioned why the Army asked for $600 million when there are no products available to buy.

Sullivan predicted that the Army may end up lowering the performance bar. “These requirements may go down on all this before this is all done,” he said.

Walker said the requirements for increment 1 will not change. Talk of being happy with 70 or 80 percent solutions does not apply to these items, he said.

“Right now, there have been no changes to the requirements,” he said. Unless there are changes to the specifications, they have to pass muster. “These are not rapid fielding things,” he added.

If they are not ready, some of the six items may be left behind when increment 1 is handed over to the first brigades.

“At some point there has to be a judgment: is perfect the enemy of good enough?” Walker asked.  

“It remains to be seen which elements parts of the capability package will pass the test and will actually deploy with that first brigade,” he added.

Lennox at the House hearing vowed that nothing will be fielded until it is ready.

The ground combat vehicle program will also be watched closely.

Sullivan told committee members that the Army’s strategy to develop the vehicle using competitive prototyping, multiple contractors and mature technologies is in line with recent acquisition reforms and other Defense Department “best practices.”

He noted that an analysis of alternatives is still being worked on and questioned why the Army was rushing into the program.

“Is there an urgent need for the ground combat vehicle right now?” he questioned. Does the Army “have to press it into an acquisition program and start spending a lot of money today?”

GAO has asked the Army send it details on its new acquisition strategy by the end of the fiscal year. The service is asking for $24 billion from 2011 to 2015 for its modernization efforts, he noted.

“With that amount of money on the line, it is critical to get these things right,” Sullivan added.

Lennox told reporters at the AUSA conference that a key part of the affordable modernization strategy will be a thorough look at all the weapons systems portfolios.

“We have learned a lot during the past couple years. It is a great time to sit back and review in an organized way our portfolios,” he said. “Do we have capability gaps identified? Do we have redundancies identified? Do we have the right long term funding and strategy in place to sustain the fleets we have?”

Knowing the precise numbers of helicopters, trucks, fighting vehicles and soldier systems is important as the Army grows, he said.

“We have been so aggressive and focused on fighting and winning today’s wars that we have probably neglected this portfolio look,” Lennox said.

The vice chief of staff of the Army is leading the effort. So far, the service has completed three reviews: tactical-wheeled vehicles, precision fires and air and missile defense.

The capabilities integration center’s Smith said the process will inform personnel needs as well. “We want to continue the thought process on what it takes to man equipment because that costs more. And that will have a ripple effect across the board,” he said.

McHugh said, “We’re being very loose and generous on a timeline” for completing the portfolio review. “This is an unusual and a very ponderous undertaking. But I would rather have it done right than done quickly.

“We do want to make sure that our requirements are matching up with our acquisitions and that we are spending taxpayer dollars in ways that benefit the force and the taxpayers to the greatest extent possible,” McHugh said.

After the tactical-wheeled vehicle portfolio review, the service decided to stop purchasing new humvees.

“That was a result of a portfolio review that found that we had met and exceeded requirements. I don’t expect the results of ensuing portfolio reviews to be as dramatic,” McHugh added.

Topics: Advanced Weapons, Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Science and Engineering Technology

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