Army Promises to Expedite Equipment Evaluations
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Suppliers of high-tech military equipment were invited to demonstrate their products last year at theArmy's "Network Integration Evaluation," or NIE. Contractors were pleased to have an opportunity to allow soldiers to test the technology in a combat-like setting, but are now voicing frustration about not knowing whether their products made the cut.
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.
Many of the companies that participated in the first two NIE events have yet to hear back on the results of the evaluations. Contractors who were expecting immediate feedback from their customers have been disappointed, and Army officials have promised to expedite the process.
“What we didn’t do very well at the first [NIE] is provide that direct feedback,” Col. Daniel P. Hughes, director of systems integration, said at the Association of the United States Army’s winter symposium.
"We’re going to try to get that report out to industry within a couple weeks," he said. "If you invest to get into the NIE, we should be able to get you that report fast enough so that it’s relevant.”
Contractors said they are hopeful that those reports will arrive soon. “That is the hardest thing for industry to do is get the soldier feedback piece,” said Peter Palmer, director of the EDGE Innovation Network for General Dynamics C4 Systems.
Customer feedback is something that companies like Taser International do on a daily basis with commercial buyers.
“In our law enforcement business, we get the chance to sit down with cops all the time,” said Rick Smith, chief executive officer and co-founder of Taser. “We learn so much even seeing them handle the gear. It’s very helpful.”
Army officials said the NIE feedback process will be expedited for future trials. “For NIE 13.1 in the fall, we received industry proposals in January and up to about mid-February,” said Brig. Gen. Randal A. Dragon, commander of Brigade Modernization Command, Army Capabilities Integration Center. “That NIE has to produce tangible results for soldiers by July. So we’re going from selection to putting something in soldiers hands in about six months.”
“The real value is quick assessments of capabilities so we don’t spend five years with the meeting and the testing stuff and in the end figure out we don’t want it,” Palmer said. “We turn it quickly and allow industry to come back with an alternate solution. The potential power of the agile process, though there are challenges, is huge for everybody involved."
But the NIE is not a silver bullet. Small businesses still have trouble wading through reams of paperwork and government bureaucracy. It still can be cumbersome and, in some cases, prohibitively expensive for companies to compete.
“For some smaller companies, it may be their whole salary for the year invested in this process and waiting for that response could crush them,” Palmer said. “A rapid 'no' in some cases is just as good as a yes.”
Army leaders said they recognize the difficulties involved with selling technology to the military and are working to make the process easier for prospective contractors of all sizes.
“It is a great concern for us that small businesses can’t get into the process,” said Hughes. “It took a little longer to get back to industry this time, but for 12.2, we’re working to get the reports back to industry in a week.”
Taser experienced the trials and tribulations of selling products to the Army after it developed a "self-contained non-lethal projectile" at a cost of $500,000, Smith said. “Then we spent two years chasing our tails,” he said. The Army is a "behemoth organization.”