Army Trying to Bring Sanity to How It Buys New Technology

5/24/2011
By Sandra I. Erwin
Imagine the Army wants to buy a new tank. Engineers at one location design a hull, and they spend a decade perfecting it. Elsewhere, another organization is assigned to pick out an engine and spends years testing it. Separately, another office buys a turret, and another acquires a gun. Finally, when the pieces are assembled — surprise! — engineers discover that the components don’t work together. Adding insult to injury, the Army has spent billions of dollars on a combat system that already is technologically obsolete. And ends up having to spend additional billions to mesh disparate, incompatible pieces of hardware and software.
This not-so-far-fetched military acquisition horror story illustrates how the Army has bought its communications networks. Years of helter-skelter procurements have resulted in an Army that is saddled with a hodgepodge of info-tech systems thatmake it difficult for soldiers in war zones to communicate or share data. Some systems that are still in development are growing increasingly expensive and expected to be outdated by the time they are shipped to combat units.
Seeking to bypass the Army’s stodgy IT procurement system, commanders in war zones over the past nine years have ended up buying their own commercial off-the-shelf communications technologies that better suit their needs. The downside, however, is that they are burdened by the extra work of setting up the new equipment and integrating it with existing radios, computers and command-and-control networks.
All that chaos is going to end, soon, promises Gen. Peter W. Chiarelli, Army vice chief of staff.
After a detailed review of Army information technology that began two years ago, the “aha” moment came when the generals and colonels in the room realized that they were doing it all wrong. The Army had been buying IT networks in isolated stovepipes while, by definition, networks have to be integrated.
Over the past six months, Army officials have beenplanning a new strategy for equipping units with the latest info-tech systems, so they can go to war and not have to worry that they will not have adequate communications and information systems, Chiarelli tells reporters at a May 23 news conference. “The Army will fundamentally change how we deliver the network,” he says.
The Army has been sinking considerable sums of money into IT systems that have been developed by individual program offices, on different timelines, using technologies with mismatched levels of maturity, he says. “We didn’t know in many instances what we had."
What the Army needs is for all the pieces of the network “come out at the same time” and function as a cohesive system, he says.
The answer is not to toss every program and start over, but to revamp the business model for how the Army will acquire technology in the future, Chiarelli says. Rather than have individual offices test systems in isolation, the plan is to assign an entire brigade of nearly 4,000 soldiers — the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, based at Fort Bliss, Texas — to become a guinea pig for every new piece of hardware or software that the Army is considering buying. The brigade will evaluate existing "programs of record" as well as new equipment that vendors will pitch in response to "requests for information" that the Army will publish.
Vendors, rather than pursue the usual inside-the-Beltway channels to sell their wares, will be invited to Fort Bliss to have their products vetted by combat-seasoned soldiers who, in theory, are supposed to know what works best.
Maj. Gen. Keith Walker, who oversees the “network integration center” at Fort Bliss, says the Army has been doing this backwards. “We evaluate a radio all by itself [which is] completely contrary to the idea of a network, where everything goes together,” he says. The Army traditionally has developed technologies and, at the very end of the cycle, it lets soldiers put it to the test. The process is now being reversed, Walker says. “The sooner you can get a soldier with the engineer, the sooner you can stop a dumb idea or advance a really good idea.”
Companies must bring fully functional equipment, not Powerpoint slides, Chiarelli cautions.
The first “network integration evaluation” will be in June. The evaluations are expected to take place every six months, so the Army can ensure it is seeing the latest technology from the commercial marketplace.
“NIEs are as much about learning as they are about testing,” says Chiarelli. Army buyers may not always be up to speed on what is available, so these events will help inform them. If a piece of equipment is selected, the Army may buy a small quantity for front-line units, he says, rather than seeking to equip the entire 1.5 million soldier Army. “We’ll buy less, more often,” says Chiarelli.
Chief Information Officer Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, says the Army will need to do a better job identifying the “capability gaps” in its tactical networks and communicating those needs to the private sector.
To simplify the process, the Army created a set of standards known as a “common operating environment” that suppliers of software,smartphones, computers and radios must comply with in order to participate in evaluation events.
“What we must do is articulate the capability gaps better,” she says. “RFIs [requests for information] will go out faster,” Lawrence says. “Industry says they’re willing to spend the research dollars. But they’re afraid they’ll end up building something we don’t need. It is on us to do a better job communicating with industry.”

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Procurement

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