Small Businesses Fight Uphill Battle for Army Network Contracts

By Dan Parsons

Here at a forward operating base in the middle of 2.2 million acres of uninhabited New Mexico desert is where companies hope they can do what they have told the Army they can do.

Called Oro Grande, this small tented outpost — ringed by concertina wire and flanked by motor pools of mine resistant ambush protected vehicles — is where lab-tested elements of the Army’s newest battlefield network are finally evaluated for integration into individual units and vehicles. If they don’t work here, the Army won’t buy them.

It is the ultimate arena in which large and small companies contend for contracts in the Army’s “agile acquisition” process, the third in a biannual series of Network Integration Evaluation events.

Over the horizon is an entire brigade of soldiers, tanks and trucks testing a new mobile communication network against a constant onslaught of virtual enemies. After 10 years of development, the Army’s secure battlefield network, its top modernization priority, is fielded and being put through the ringer before it goes into combat next year.

“We have made a quantum leap in our capability to establish the network so that the unit can use the network in an operationally relevant environment,” Col. Dan Hughes, director of systems integration for program executive office of integration, tells National Defense. “Instead of them taking the equipment and asking ‘How do I make this work?’ they now can say ‘How can I take this and attack this operation?’”

Most of the components of the network are existing programs of record built by companies like Thales, General Dynamics and Harris Corp. that have a long history of doing business with the Defense Department. Also in the field are smaller companies, like Austin, Texas-based Ringtail Design, which was extolled by several Army officers involved with the NIE as an example of increased inclusion of small businesses in the acquisition model.
But small firms face sometimes insurmountable hurdles in their quest for government contracts. Not the least is that meeting Defense Department requirements are new to them and their support teams. That’s something even Army officials are readily willing to admit.

“A lot of times we go to a vendor and they say, ‘Sure, we can do that,’ while their idea of ‘we can do that’ is not always the same as what someone who has been through full-on new equipment training expects it to do,” says Maj. Erik Webb, product manager for the Program Management Office Capability Package with the System of Systems Integration Directorate.

By the time systems under evaluation reach the range, they have already been through several rounds of testing aimed at whittling down industry offerings to a few that potentially will fulfill the Army’s needs. Still, when network systems arrive, there are often issues with deploying them in a combat scenario, Webb says.

“The major challenge is the data and power integration of systems on vehicles and the education of unit leadership in the proper employment and limitations of those systems,” he says. “Half the battle is just making the brigade leadership understand what these systems are for.”

Unit commanders at White Sands and those observing from much higher echelons are learning the advantages the new network affords.

This time around, units can communicate on the move, a capability that has eluded the Army since major connectivity issues were identified during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The 101st Airborne leadership is keeping tabs on the exercise from Ft. Campbell, Ky., in real time.

The purpose of the current NIE is to solidify a baseline communications network into which future technologies can be easily plugged. It also marks the formal inclusion of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 2, or WIN-T 2, the Army’s on-the-go, satellite-based communication system.

More than 3,800 soldiers from 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division are using that equipment while fighting a fictional war on a slice of desert the size of Delaware.

The exercise finalizes the equipment that eight brigades will be outfitted with beginning in October, dubbed Capability Set 13. The first two brigades will be from the 10th Mountain Division, which will carry the network gear to Afghanistan next year. There are 5,000 rifleman radios being tested during NIE 12.2, along with the Nett Warrior system, which introduces a handheld smartphone device to squad leaders and above. The two technologies extend the network to the individual soldier.

A total of 350 vehicles in eight variants, including tanks, MRAPs and Humvees equipped with 117-G and Joint Tactical Radio Systems, are stirring up dust with the soldiers.

Army spokesmen are eager to advertise not only how the NIE has sped acquisition, but how much money it has shaved from the network’s ultimate cost since the first iteration of the event last year.

Since NIE 11.2, changes have been made to the acquisition strategy and makeup of the system that will result in a total savings of $6.21 billion, according to figures provided by the Army.

Capability Set 13 will be $4.04 billion cheaper than originally estimated. By reducing the Nett Warrior system from a 19-pound suit to a 3-pound handheld device, the cost of procurement was slashed from $2.1 billion to $1.2 billion for a savings of $822 million for that program. Cancellation of technologies like the Mounted Soldier System have further reduced the ultimate cost of fielding.

Army leaders are committed to cutting the cost of the NIE itself, which has already run about $600 million. Much of that expense has been upfront costs to build an information-gathering infrastructure that was lacking when the Army started sending network components to White Sands.

Gathering data on ground-level systems wasn’t something Army engineers were prepared to do at the base. They initially had no means of gathering data in real time from the network trials, which led to backlogs and grumblings from industry that the Army’s new “agile process” was anything but agile.

“Our instrumentation has always been up in the air,” said Fil Macias, chief of the network and control division at the Systems Engineering Directorate.

“Now we’ve got soldiers on the ground. It’s still a work in progress.”

What White Sands does have to offer is “spectrum, airspace and landmass,” says Cammy Montoya, a range spokeswoman.

“We have 2.2 million acres and we don’t play ‘Mother, May I’ with the [Federal Aviation Administration],” she said.

So civilian engineers have had to modify the existing testing support network, or TSN, to meet the demands of the new NIE concept.

The most influential improvement so far was the introduction of tablet computers for near-instantaneous data collection in the field. Nine different designs were evaluated and eventually that number was whittled down to one, a Hewlett Packard. Range engineers and data-gathering staff have so far ordered 170 for use in NIE 12.2 and plan to reevaluate the tablets to inform purchases for future events.

“These tablets have proven absolutely critical,” said Adam Shelley, a data manager with Army Operational Test Command. “The data quality is much better. We were using paper where the collector would then come back from the field and type his notes into a laptop, which could take days.”

The baseline network being finalized during the current NIE will inherently drive down the cost of hosting future events, as industry will be able to design offerings that are plug and play, says Jerry Edwards, director of the office of the chief systems engineer at Army Operational Test Command.

“The integration burden today is high and it takes a long time,” Edwards tells National Defense. “Once we establish a foundation and make that available to industry, then they can build apps rapidly. Today those innovations come to us as a separate system.”

Establishing a baseline network architecture will ultimately lower the barrier for entry for industry, a primary goal of the NIE.

“It will give us more agility in getting new technologies to the war fighter and will help us keep pace with what industry is doing,” Edwards says. “We want to make sure that this is open to small business and we’re trying to figure out how to do that. We don’t want the price of entry to be so high as to bar people.”

The NIE will eventually be a cyclical process to which contractors of all sizes can submit offerings to fill capability gaps identified and advertized by the Army. While soldiers are field testing Capability Set 13 in the desert, engineers at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., are already evaluating equipment offerings that will eventually be tested at White Sands in next year’s NIE 13.1.

“We want to be sure this is accessible to as many small businesses as possible,” Hughes says.

But some small business contenders, like Ringtail CEO Jeff Carpenter, said their experience at NIE 12.2 was less than sterling. Ringtail develops command-and-control, mission planning and intelligence-gathering software in hopes of having it integrated into the Army network. Carpenter said major barriers to entry remain for companies like his, which has a total of 15 employees. It is supporting six different software systems at the May NIE with between one and three people.

“I walk down the hall and pass a team of 15 guys from one of these huge companies and it’s just me,” Carpenter said. “Working with the Army as a small business is extremely difficult. [Prime contractors] certainly have an advantage.”

Carpenter said he knows of some small contractors that participated in NIE 12.1 that simply declined to continue seeking Army contracts because of the cost associated with fielding their offerings and seemingly endless red tape. Still, as the process matures, he has gauged a slight upsurge in enthusiasm going into next year’s NIE 13.1, when Army officials have said they will offer subsidies to small businesses wishing to participate.

Reaction to the latest event at White Sands from prime contractors has been decidedly upbeat, after months of concerns following the previous iteration that Army officials were slow to respond with information on system performance.

Harris Corp., which builds the 117-G radios that are a backbone technology of the Army’s new network, has an obvious stake in the NIE’s outcome.

Dennis Moran, vice president of defense business development for Harris’ RF communications division, says the company is “a big supporter of this process. It acknowledges the rapid rate at which technology changes and allows the Army to adapt its requirement to account for that.”

Echoing a line Army leaders often use, Moran, who has criticized the service for being sluggish and unresponsive in past NIEs, says the process is “maturing.”

“The Army has made some pretty significant decisions to change the way they are operating these events and it’s important that we acknowledge that,” he says. “Certainly communication, the dialogue established between DoD and industry, documentation of the process, the organization that is being put in place at Aberdeen [Proving Ground, Md.] has improved significantly.”

Most important for industry is the opportunity to put its products in the hands of soldiers during the technological development stage, Moran says. It allows companies to tweak their offerings and return to a subsequent NIE with a refined product. Moran gives the example of Nett Warrior. When soldiers told industry representatives that the 19-pound suit version was ungainly and restrictive, industry went back to the drawing board and reduced it in size and weight to a device reminiscent of a smartphone.

“That informal feedback is absolutely invaluable, perhaps as much or more so than formal evaluation reports from the Army,” Moran says. “A good company needs to be in touch with the user and be able to tweak offerings long before a report comes from the Department of the Army.”   

Topics: Defense Contracting

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