Army Asks for Contractors' Patience With Network Procurement
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. — Army officials give themselves a B grade for communicating with industry through the first two rounds of the Network Integration Evaluation program.
Responding to contractors' complaints that the Army has not shared the results of the past two NIE events, Col. John Morrison, director of the Army’s LandWarNet/Battle Command, asked industry for a break.
He said the NIE efforts to field an integrated battlefield communications network so far is moving at lightning speed relative to traditional acquisitions processes. “We’ve been doing this for nine months,” Morrison told reporters at the Army’s new Aberdeen-based research facility.
“Quite frankly, for something inside the [Defense Department] to be moving that fast is pretty significant. So, it is a maturing process," he said. “I would probably give us a B on communicating with industry. But we’re getting much more targeted on what we want industry to help us with.”
The Army is set to begin NIE 12.2 in May at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range. It will be the third in an ongoing series of field tests designed to provide communications technologies for deployed soldiers.
Companies whose products were evaluated in NIE 11.2 last fall have yet to receive feedback from the Army. So far, no new-start contracts for radios or other communications equipment have resulted. Final evaluation of those tests have been completed and the Army is “in the process of codifying them so we can communicate them back out to industry,” Morrison said.
The May network trials will be the largest thus far, with an entire brigade combat team of about 3,800 soldiers testing communications equipment. About 16 companies will be participating in the event, up from 14 that were included in the previous NIE, Morrison said. But the process is a learning experience for both the Army and companies hoping to score a government contract.
“Is there some cutting teeth going on, you betcha,” Morrison said. “We know we’ve got to improve our feedback mechanism to industry, both from what happened inside the labs to actual feedback on the ground. … We’re working to do that.”
While it is gearing up for the desert trials of NIE 12.2, the evaluation labs at Aberdeen Proving Ground have already begun testing products for 13.1, which will be conducted next fall. Engineers have already screened industry white papers. The products they would like to test will begin physically arriving at the Aberdeen labs on March 19, said Scott Newman, lab director for Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center.
Those will be put through their paces virtually to work out any bugs before being put in soldiers’ hands, he said. The submissions will be further culled to a smaller list of viable technologies.
Of 145 industry submissions for NIE 12.2, 66 companies were invited to send their technologies to the lab, Newman said. Only 45 of them actually shipped their submissions. Of those, 15 will be field tested, he said.
Being rejected at any phase of the process isn’t a death sentence for the offered technology. Every six months, companies can retool and resubmit products that didn’t at first fit the Army’s bill. “You don’t necessarily have to hit a homerun and get into an NIE and it’s pass-fail right there,” Morrison said. If a product shows promise, he said, "We’ll target you for another one in six months.”
Feedback should flow more easily as the process matures, eventually resulting in an NIE every six months with fielding of new technologies at the start of the government’s fiscal year in October, he said.
The Army plans to outfit eight infantry brigade combat teams with new communications systems. Since the first NIE, the Army already has ditched the cumbersome, 14-pound Net Warrior systems that soldiers panned and expects to use lighter smartphone-based technologies.
“We will now field the eight brigade combat teams with a capability a full three years earlier than they would have gotten it before,” he said. “That’s the model we’re trying t put in place. That’s the power of the NIE and that’s the power of having the soldier involved in this process early and often.”
The NIE marks a departure from the traditional division of labor between industry and the military. The process has been contrasted with the now-canceled Future Combat Systems, a costly and ultimately failed Army effort to develop its own tactical communications network. With FCS, the Army assumed all the costs of research and development, a construct Morrison said was a “fundamental mistake.”
“We know that building network capability is not the Army’s core competency,” he said. “So we want to leverage industry innovation and that’s what the NIE construct allows us to do. We’re able to bring them in, see what they have for us, allow them to assume some of the risk with us and then integrate it into a capability set and get it into our formations much, much quicker. Hopefully, and we’re starting to see this, at reduced prices.”