Army Rethinks, Again, How to Acquire Technology
Network Integration Evaluation 12.2
A decade of war taught the Army, among other lessons, that it needed a new approach for buying information-age technologies such as computers and communications systems.
Senior Army leaders in 2011 introduced with great fanfare a nontraditional plan for acquiring wireless networks for combat brigades. The centerpiece of the strategy are “network integration evaluations” where soldiers get to test every widget before the Army buys it. NIEs also, for the first time, allowed the Army to put together and test all the pieces of an information network at once, rather than wait for troops to experiment with new systems while in combat.
These technology trials are scheduled every six months at training ranges that simulate real-war conditions. They have been praised by Army officials as a welcome departure from the old ways of doing business. No more wasting years testing widgets in laboratories. And no more buying radios and computers that, by the time they reach deployed forces, are technologically obsolete.
Army officials, though, are now rethinking the original plan. They want to continue to host NIEs, but they are looking to make changes in how technologies are sought and selected. Without the urgency of war requests, they also want to slow down the process to give contractors more time to allocate corporate research funds to projects that are more likely to result in production orders. Officials have concluded that the fast-paced NIEs of the past two years have not allowed sufficient time for Army strategists to decide what new equipment soldiers might need years from now.
Among the most vocal critics of the NIE have been military contractors as well as contractor wannabes who are lured by the $3 billion annual market for Army networks. Vendors see the NIE as a huge opportunity to showcase their products, but participation requires a significant upfront investment with no guarantee of future sales. Participants have complained that NIEs have not opened up the market to newcomers and essentially have rubber stamped existing “programs of record.”
Growing pains notwithstanding, the Army wants to stick with the NIE, and is taking steps to improve it, said Army spokesman Paul Mehney.
“We went back and looked at the NIE process,” and a number of changes are being considered, he said.
A top concern is to ensure that as many contractors as possible continue to sign up for future NIEs. The Government Accountability Office noted in a recent report that “industry participation in the NIEs is critical to the success of the Army network modernization strategy. … Industry is making a sizable investment to take part in an NIE, and it remains to be seen if industry will continue to participate in this strategy over the longer term while purchases to date have been minimal.”
The Army so far has bought one new system — a vehicle mounted software-driven radio — after having evaluated more than 100 new products over four NIE events, according to GAO. The majority of the systems that were tested were pieces of equipment that the Army already had funded in its long-term budget. To date, GAO said, “Army procurement of new network technologies from other than programs of record has been very limited.”
Mehney said Army officials are sensitive to the complaints and are looking for ways to blend the NIE into the “requirements definition.” Defining a requirement is Pentagon-speak for the first step in the process that leads a piece of equipment to be funded in the Defense Department’s budget, and, later to a “request for proposals” from potential vendors.
Under the current process, the Army publishes “sources sought” solicitations that identify broad categories of desired technologies. Interested vendors submit white papers, and those that get selected can bring equipment to the NIE for evaluation. These events take place every six months at Fort Bliss, Texas, and White Sands Missile Range, N.M.
Many of the technologies that are evaluated at NIEs, however, never become RFPs. This has raised questions about whether these evaluations target legitimate requirements.
The Army understands that the NIE should be more closely aligned with requirements, said Mehney.
“Where we are going with the NIE [is to begin] using the NIE to shape requirements definition … to allow us to buy a little smarter and make better use of the RFP process,” he said. Still, industry should not expect quick purchasing decisions. Many companies erroneously believed that the NIE was a venue where the Army would instantly pick winners. “That is not the case,” Mehney said.
The “sources sought” solicitations in the future will be more specific and aligned with anticipated requirements, he said. The next NIE, called 13.2, is scheduled in May and June.
The goal is to use the first evaluation of each fiscal year for “broad-based market research,” Mehney said. Soldier feedback during that NIE will then be applied to “requirements definition.” Another consideration will be how a piece of equipment fits into the network baseline, he said. A brigade-size tactical network already has been deployed in what the Army calls “capability set 13.” The next version will be “capability set 14” and will build on the previous system.
If Army officials decide that a particular item that was evaluated should be purchased, it will be considered a candidate for a future RFP, Mehney said.
As originally conceived, the NIE was to attract commercial products that did not require research-and-development work. But it turns out the Army has many unique demands that can’t be met by off-the-shelf purchases and needs contractors to design new products. As a result, future NIEs will be coordinated with companies’ IR&D (independent research and development) initiatives, Mehney said.
“We are hearing from industry that the Army needs to do a better job shaping IR&D,” he said. The sources-sought announcements that require a response within weeks don’t give industry enough time to prepare for the next NIE, he said. “Industry doesn’t plan in that short chunk of time. They need two to four years to shape their IR&D.”
The Army eventually will align NIEs with IR&D planning, he said. The office of the assistant secretary of the Army for acquisitions and technology recently consolidated internal bureaucracies to address this issue, Mehney said. The Army’s long-term wish list will be better coordinated with the NIE so “industry can plan a little bit better.”
The list of long-term priorities is still in the works, Mehney said. “We are trying to drive to that.”
Among the likely candidates is “operational energy,” he said. That includes batteries that last longer and weigh less, smart generators that burn less fuel and vehicle power systems that turn trucks into mobile generators.
“When we write proposals to industry, it’s done broadly to give vendors discretion to go after soldier power, vehicle power and battlefield power,” said Col. Bruce McPeak, director of the materiel systems directorate at the Combined Arms Support Command.
He said the Army is seeking microgrids that include renewable energy in power generation, and hybrid electric power systems that capture solar energy and stores it in batteries.
“If someone brings a solution to the NIE the Army likes, it will be recommended for further fielding,” he said. “We’ll buy a limited quantity and put them in ‘capability sets’ for further testing,” he added. “Then we determine if we want to buy it for the entire Army.”
Mehney said another priority is how to connect helicopters with drones, which the military calls “manned-unmanned” teaming. “We need to do that more smartly,” Mehney said.
Other potential items on the Army’s wish list are new technologies to protect ground vehicles from bombs and rockets, and software that can help integrate the Army’s battle-command information systems with intelligence analysts’ databases. “Routing across the brigade structure is still a big gap,” Mehney said.
The 2014 NIEs will start looking at home-unit networks, he said. When soldiers return from war, they might not have adequate means to access the tactical network and the larger Army “enterprise” systems, he said. “That is a major issue for the 14 series.”
Michael S. Jacobs, deputy for integration at the Brigade Modernization Command, said the Army is “doing a better job alerting industry on long-term objectives.” Jacobs’ organization is part of the Training and Doctrine Command, which is responsible for writing requirements for new equipment.
“When we started this process, industry would get the sources-sought memo and 25 days later they would have to put a nomination forward,” Jacobs said in an interview. “We had to get better integrated into the IR&D cycle of industry.” He conceded that the “processes are cumbersome and hard to understand, especially if you’re not in the know.”
The NIE 14 series, he said, will be open to other branches of the military and foreign allies, Jacobs said. “We are going to get to more of the joint flavor.”
Army officials, meanwhile, expect increased congressional oversight of the NIE. The Government Accountability Office called out the Army for making it difficult for Congress to track its $3 billion in annual expenditures associated with battlefield networks. The task is hugely complicated because network-related items are spread across hundreds of budget lines.
GAO does give the Army credit for introducing the NIE as an alternative to the traditional acquisition process. “If the Army can find a way to procure and field new technologies within two to three years, that is still considerably better than a typical development effort that in the past has taken a decade or longer.”
But congressional auditors warned that the Army is at risk of alienating potential vendors. “The Army/industry relationship will have to be carefully monitored and nurtured — that should be a priority for both DoD and the Army.”
Photo Credit: Army