U.S. Troops Deserve a Competitive Equipment Advantage

By Paul J. Kern

The Army’s 2nd Brigade of the 24th Infantry Division Mechanized was on the left hook into Iraq in 1991. Fuel and communications were the limiting factors of its advance, not the enemy.

The radios in the brigade’s combat vehicles, the A/N VRC-46 and the radios for the dismounted infantry, the PRC-77, were the same configuration that I had as a platoon leader and troop commander in Vietnam in the late 1960s. They were replaced by SINCGARS (Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System) radios in 1992 after the Army returned from combat operations.

The point is, as the Army stands on the brink of introducing wideband tactical radios, I do not want this to be the same technology our troops must rely on 20 to 30 years from now.

The Army can do better than this by taking advantage of commercial competitive practices for fast-moving technologies, rather than lengthy bureaucratic processes. The armed forces should have the best capability when they need it — and at a more affordable price in a time of lean defense budgets.

Ironically, we have already learned how to leverage commercial competition and done so successfully.

Just as the Internet was exploding, I was privileged to command the 4th Infantry Division Mechanized during the period when we were evaluating new concepts, technologies and organizations for the 21st Century Army. We experimented with networked systems using existing radios and commercial network protocols. We proved it could work and that it was effective in improving our operations.

The Army adopted the new technology in the form of the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below, known as FBCB2, and later as Blue Force Tracking. It was so successful that the 3rd Infantry Division Mechanized employed these capabilities in their takedown of Baghdad in 2003.

The lesson we learned was that commercial and defense companies in competitive experimentation could rapidly field systems to improve the military’s war-fighting capabilities. This was all accomplished during the low point of Defense Department budgets and with forces continuously engaged in the Balkans and the Middle East.

U.S. high-tech firms are well situated to win in the relentless competition of global markets. But they must learn how to integrate products into the defense acquisition process.

In 2011, the Army launched a series of “network integration evaluations,” or NIEs, at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Now in its fourth iteration, the NIE has proven an effective way to evaluate operational performance of tactical communications against troops’ changing needs. The Army’s achievements at NIEs are paving the way to expanding the program. According to Brig. Gen. Randal Dragon, head of the U.S. Army’s Brigade Modernization Command, “When we get into [future evaluation], we’re really focused on increasing the joint, international, intergovernmental and interagency participation.”

The success is in large part the result of industry willingness to invest its own dollars and risk revealing its best ideas in a public, operational, performance-based competition.

The Army must be willing to show industry how its investments result in real returns through production contracts quickly following acceptance of new ideas.

The winner will not be the soldier who has to wait 34 years as I did for new communications devices, but the one who is able to use the best technology available today.

Taxpayers win, too, when the military reduces the cost of developing these capabilities. But there must be real competition where products are evaluated in realistic environments, or we will fall behind our adversaries who go directly to the commercial markets.

Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, when undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, called for competition and meeting fighting forces’ needs now. His successor Frank Kendall has reinforced this need in the recent release of the “Better Buying Power 2.0” memorandum, which calls for “more capability for the warfighter and more value for the taxpayer by obtaining greater efficiency and productivity in defense spending.”

Promoting real and effective competition — a focus of Better Buying Power 2.0 — is paramount in accomplishing these aims. The secretary of the Army and his acquisition executive, Assistant Secretary Heidi Shyu, have likewise marched in the direction of real competition.

The nation’s soldiers, Marines and special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have all learned through “urgent operational needs statements” that the Defense Department can accelerate developments and get products to the field rapidly. We must not slip back into long drawn-out bureaucratic processes that have not delivered products on time or within budget.

It is important to apply the lessons of the last 16 years to integrate real competition and continuous experimentation to provide the nation’s armed forces a competitive edge.

Paul J. Kern, a retired Army general, is senior counselor at The Cohen Group.

Photo Credit: Army

Topics: Defense Department, DOD Budget, Procurement

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