Acquisition Official Says Army Must Change Its Ways
When the Army at the height of the Iraq war needed thousands of armored trucks equipped with tactical radios and electronics, it went to the Navy for help.
The Army's procurement shops are quite capable of buying trucks, radios and other electronic gear. But they do not have an explicit method for integrating multiple pieces of equipment into a vehicle and making them all function cohesively. With the Pentagon under pressure to deploy armored trucks to the war zone, the job of outfitting more than 20,000 mine resistant trucks with electronics suites for U.S. troops at war fell on the Navy, which has extensive experience assembling complex systems aboard ships. The electronics on the vehicles were installed at the Naval Weapons Station, in Charleston, South Carolina.
The lesson for the Army was that it needs to sharpen its skills in "systems integration," says Kevin Fahey, who recently became the Army's executive director for agile acquisition, a new position that reports directly to the service's top weapons buyer Heidi Shuy. In his previous job, Fahey oversaw the Army's portfolio of ground vehicle systems.
"Everybody wanted to put everything on the MRAP, but we in the Army didn't have a process for how to put a network in a vehicle. The Navy made that happen," Fahey tells a group of industry executives at a June 5 breakfast meeting. "We've always struggled with C4ISR integration into platforms," he says, using the military abbreviation for command, control, communications and intelligence systems.
The Army launched a major initiative in 2011 to build a brigade-size tactical network as an integrated ensemble, rather than in the traditional piecemeal fashion. Until then, it lacked an overarching plan for how to define the desired tactical network and had no strategy for how to acquire the technology. Under the ponderous military procurement system, information technology frequently becomes obsolete by the time soldiers get their hands on it.
In an effort to shake up the traditional acquisition process, the Army set up a brigade-level testing ground at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, and Fort Bliss, Texas, and has organized "network integration evaluation" events, or NIE, twice a year.
Fahey says the NIE events are helping Army buyers see the bigger picture of how their programs interact with others. Officials believe this is essential as the Army looks to become a networked force.
The Army is testing its systems-integration knowhow as it builds a brigade-size wireless network of sensors, software, and radios to give soldiers and commanders access to information anywhere in the world. The goal is to provide brigade commanders with "integrated" vehicles and tactical operations centers that can be shipped to a war zone and used immediately. Current systems require weeks of set up time and training.
The Army recently completed NIE 14.2, the seventh in the series. The evaluations, where combat-seasoned soldiers test equipment and provide immediate feedback, are helping Army buyers understand why commanders need well-configured networks that are user friendly, Fahey says. “Past programs were not ‘human factors’ friendly." If bulky electronics and cables make it hard for the soldier to get in and out of a truck, the technology is hindering rather than helping the soldier, he says. “The NIE is the first real process we have had to do network integration across the Army.”
Fahey acknowledges that changing the old ways of doing business will not be easy. The Army’s acquisition bureaucracy has been trained to focus on “products,” rather than networked systems that might apply to an entire brigade. “We write requirements, fund and manage products. We do not manage programs in the bureaucracy as an integrated capability.”
Army leaders recently rolled out their vision of the future, called “Force 2025” that calls for vastly improved communications and information networks across all Army units. Fahey predicts the Army will have its “baseline” tactical network fully completed by 2020. It could take an additional two years to field the technology and have it ready for deployment with a combat brigade.
Brig. Gen. John Charlton, commander of the Army's Brigade Modernization Command, says he supports the NIE “incremental modernization” approach.
The baseline network would include different types of radios and vehicles that provide satellite and line-of-sight communications that would allow a brigade to stretch over 100 miles and stay connected. It is taking years to build this network because every component is at a different stage of development. The goal is that, by 2020, all the pieces will be ready and integrated into a brigade,
Charlton tells reporters during a conference call. “Until you do that, you are only going to get a partial picture of what the network is capable of,” he says. “Right now we have good capabilities that we're fielding,” Charlton says. “The NIE is the means by which we see how the network supports the Army in combat.”
Commanders like Charlton also want the same wireless communications and sensor systems that go on MRAP trucks to be integrated in older vehicles such as Abrams tanks and Bradley infantry carriers. That is a tough challenge for Army engineers because older vehicles’ architectures are largely incompatible with advanced electronics.
Charlton says future NIEs will test the Army’s ability to connect its vehicles and networks with systems that are operated by other branches of the U.S. military and by foreign allies. Interoperability has been a longstanding goal of the Defense Department, but the services’ insular procurement cultures have made that difficult. Army officials say they have invited the other services and NATO allies to participate in NIEs.
Fahey notes that the long-term objective is to fundamentally change how the Army buys equipment. Weapon systems in the future, for instance, might have to be connected to a “common operating environment,” he says. Instead of having managers overseeing individual items, there would be horizontal integration with a “common hardware line” and a “common software line,” each managed by a single leader. That is a drastic departure from the current silo-based model, but it is a worthy goal, says Fahey, because it would expedite upgrades and help make systems interoperable across the enterprise. “A common operating environment is a lot harder than people think,” he says.
Integration, however, can go too far. Fahey recalls the Army’s failed attempt to build the “future combat systems,” an overarching program that included nearly every weapon system as part of a network. The lesson from FCS: “We have to avoid getting so big that we can't manage it.”
Another pitfall the Army must avoid is its propensity to over-engineer equipment and make it too complex for soldiers in combat who need reliable, user-friendly technology.Brig. Gen. Daniel Hughes, program executive officer for Army C3T (command, control, communications-tactical), has ordered several changes in the Army’s network to make it simpler to use. The most common gripe Hughes hears from soldiers is that the equipment is “not intuitive.”