Army Makes Push to Fix its Acquisition Regime

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Defense Dept.

Army leaders came to the service’s biggest conference of the year in Washington, D.C., with one central message: “We’re going to fix our broken acquisition system.”

The first step on the road to recovery is admitting there is a problem. It’s not that the Army doesn’t realize it takes too long to field new technologies, but this is the first time it has delivered such a unified message with senior leaders, program managers and their civilian counterparts all publicly announcing initiatives that are supposed to put the Army’s acquisition enterprise in order.

The Association of the United States Army annual conference kicked off with Acting Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley announcing the formation of a yet-to-be named command that will help it streamline its acquisition processes and deliver new capabilities to soldiers as quickly as possible.

It was only a year ago at the same conference when Milley announced the “multi-domain battle concept,” in which he envisioned a future where the Army had to fight peer or near-peer competitors in the land, sea, air, electromagnetic and cyber realms. The service had enjoyed success against poorly equipped, relatively low-tech insurgents, but nations such as Russia — although senior leaders are reluctant to name names — will be coming at U.S. forces with more than small arms and roadside bombs.

A year later, vendors at the show had the words “multi-domain battle” and “solutions” and “innovation” emblazoned across their booths in an effort to prove that they can deliver what the Army needs as it enters this new era.

While industry might be able to provide what the Army requires to fight on future battlefields, the service must be able to acquire it in a timely manner.

That is the crux of the problem for the Army and one of the most crucial questions facing the military as a whole today: Can it maintain its edge over potential rivals while being hamstrung by an antiquated acquisition system?

The interesting aspect of this new push is that it appears to be coming from the Army itself. These are not edicts flowing from Congress or the office of the secretary of defense. It does follow a trend in Congress that wants to take oversight away from the OSD and return it to the services.

Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said at the conference that she fully supports this trend and that she has already begun the process of returning oversight to the services.

So it appears the Army will have a chance to show it can cut red tape and speed up the acquisition of new technology — as long as it doesn’t break any laws put forth by Congress, which are there to ensure that it doesn’t waste taxpayer dollars on boondoggles. Not that these laws have worked in doing so in the past.

The new command will divvy up its efforts into categories. They are in order of importance: long-range precision fires; the next-generation combat vehicle; future vertical lift platforms; network mobility; air and missile defense capabilities; and soldier lethality.

While this is a prioritized list, perhaps the last should be first as the Army charts a new acquisition path. It needs a new 7.62 mm squad designated marksman rifle and a more potent 5.56 mm round for the M4 carbine. There is no reason why the soldiers of a gun-obsessed nation such as the United States should go to war with anything less than the best rifles and ammunition. A positive step for these reform efforts would be to deliver on these vital small arms requirements in a timely manner.

But the poster child for what Milley and other senior officials are talking about must be the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, the WIN-T program. This battlefield tactical communications system wasn’t perfect, but worked well enough when it was used against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Milley says it does not have the kind of electronic warfare and cyber protection needed to fend off sophisticated enemies.

Lt. Gen. Bruce T. Crawford, Army chief information officer, said at the conference that there will be some quick fixes to make WIN-T more robust, but the bigger problem is that the Army acquires software and communications technology too slowly.

The service must consolidate its info-tech requirements. There are too many organizations creating stove-piped systems that are delivering products that are outdated by the time they reach the field, Crawford said.

Cross-functional teams made up of military personnel and industry will ensure that the service understands what kinds of innovative products are available in the private sector and that the service knows “the art of the possible,” he said.

At another AUSA talk, Lt. Gen. Edward Cardon, director of the office of business transformation and his deputy director, Robin Swan, introduced “The Army Innovation Strategy: 2017-2021.” The plan is to take the buzzword “innovation” and create “the culture, structures and systems that will unleash the creativity of the entire force and enable the Army to obtain capabilities ahead of competitors and adversaries.”

Swan said innovation isn’t necessarily materiel solutions, although that is the way the Army by and large sees it. It can be the way the service produces doctrine, trains its leaders, or structures its organizations. But it’s hampered by a risk-averse culture.

“We don’t embrace the idea of fail fast so we can learn from it and move on to the next best thing,” Swan said. Innovation must be rewarded even if it leads to failure, he added.
That could be a message for the entire Army as it begins its effort to speed up its acquisition system: if this new effort doesn’t work, move on to new ideas — but quickly.

Topics: Acquisition Programs, Acquisition, Technology Tomorrow

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