WEB EXCLUSIVE: Army Cancels High-Profile Robotic Mule Contract (Updated)
The Army Contracting Command in the face of an industry protest canceled a General Dynamics Land Systems contract to build the squad multi-purpose equipment transport vehicle, according to one of the program’s participants.
GDLS in late October was awarded the contract worth $162 million to build the SMET, a robotic mule intended to lighten the load of soldiers in the field and perform other missions. One of the three other competitors for the program, Textron, filed a protest with the Government Accountability Office. However, the Army in December decided to terminate the contract and recompete the program prior to a GAO ruling.
“The government is taking corrective action following a GAO protest, and intends to resolicit for SMET. ... Vendors can expect a new [request for proposals] in January, and will have 30 days to submit a bid. The target award date is 30 April 2020,” an Army Contracting Command email forwarded to National Defense by one of the program’s runners-up stated.
The contract was awarded after four companies competed for the program under an other transaction authority agreement. Such agreements are intended to speed up the procurement of new technology by allowing prototypes to go directly to a production contract as long as they are part of a competitive process.
The Army has long desired a robotic mule, with requirements dating back to the Future Combat Systems program, which was canceled in 2009. Leadership of program executive office for combat support and combat service support in a June 6, 2018 article published by the Army stated the necessity of fielding the SMET “faster and cheaper,” and proclaimed their intentions to use the newly found authority granted by Congress to use OTAs to alleviate the burdens of traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation contracting.
OTAs had been in existence for decades, but the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act changed several restrictions, including the ability of the military to go from a prototype developed under an OTA to a production contract, as long as there was a competition to determine the best technology.
After some 10 vendors had demonstrated their robotic mules to PEO CS&CSS, it awarded funding under an OTA to four manufacturers: General Dynamics Land Systems; Textron, with a vehicle developed by its subsidiary Howe & Howe; an Applied Research Associates/Polaris Defense team; and HDT Global.
The four robotic vehicles then underwent a series of user tests in 2019 conducted by the Army Test and Evaluation Command prior to the contract award in October. The Army has stated its intentions to procure more than 600 SMET vehicles at a price of about $100,000 each.
Textron’s protest argued that GDLS had significantly altered its vehicle in the follow-on contract after the OTA evaluation phase. That rendered the tests and users’ evaluations invalid, the source alleged.
A GDLS spokesperson declined to be interviewed about the program and referred questions to the Army. A PEO CS&CSS spokesperson could not provide comment in time for publication. A Textron representative also declined to comment.
Update: A spokesperson for the Army's PEO CS&CS responded Jan. 10 with a brief statement: "In response to an unsuccessful contractor's protest to GAO, the Army elected to take corrective action, which involves terminating the original contract and allowing offerors that proposed to the original RFP to respond and award a new contract. This action will only be competed amongst those contractors who originally proposed."