Army Has Another Go at Robotic Mule Program

By Yasmin Tadjdeh

Army concept

Following a high-profile cancellation, the Army is working on getting its long-in-the-works robotic mule program back on track.

The small multipurpose equipment transport program is envisioned as a way to take weight off soldiers by using unmanned ground vehicles to carry equipment. The service went as far as to award General Dynamics Land Systems a $162 million contract last year out of a pool of four competitors who had made it into the second phase of the program. The Army used an other transaction authority agreement to fund the prototypes that took part in the competition.

However, the award was swiftly protested to the Government Accountability Office by Textron, which had submitted a vehicle developed by its subsidiary Howe & Howe.

Textron’s protest argued that General Dynamics had significantly altered its vehicle in the follow-on contract after the OTA evaluation phase. That rendered the tests and users’ evaluations invalid, a source alleged.

However, before the GAO could make a ruling, the Army canceled the effort and subsequently launched a new competition with revised evaluation criteria.

All four phase two competitors — General Dynamics Land Systems; Textron; an Applied Research Associates/Polaris Defense team; and HDT Global — are recompeting in the new effort, said Timothy Goddette, the head of program executive office for combat support and combat service support, the PEO in charge of SMET.

The new request for proposal — which was sent to industry in February — includes revised evaluation criteria, according to the document, which was not released publicly and was obtained by National Defense. Originally, there were four evaluation factors including soldier feedback, system reliability, system delivery and cost/price. However, with the new competition, the Army is now looking at only two: phase three system design and cost/price.

“The driving rationale for the change in criteria was based on consistent feedback from soldiers during mission exercises regarding the noise signature of the systems, specifically the generators and powertrain,” the RFP said. “Furthermore, payload and operation range in silent mode are essential characteristics of the system based on the intended use of the SMET amongst light infantry and were determined to be of great criticality.”

The system reliability factor was removed due to a lack of recorded hours, the document said. Additionally, although the government released a draft RFP that contained a third factor, the government removed it to expedite proposal preparation and evaluation.

Goddette, speaking during an interview at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Tactical Wheeled Vehicles Conference in Austin, Texas, in March, said when Textron protested the SMET decision, the service took it seriously.

“When a contractor brings something up that they think wasn’t [done] the way we told them we were going to do it, … we take a look at it and we say, ‘You know, you made a point,’ and so we have a method for doing a corrective action,” he said.

He noted that the soldier feedback area is where some problems arose.

“Some of the soldier feedback questions were to give our user representatives feedback [so] that they could refine requirements,” he said. “Some of the questions were related to how is the material doing so we could downselect.”

However, “that got a little muddled,” he said. “That was really the issue. And so we just kind of separated that and went back out.”

The Army wants to ensure that it is fair to industry, Goddette added.

“We’re not going to do any more testing; we’re not going to do anything else,” he said. “We’re just going to make sure that we’re very clear and very fair. We told them what we’re going to do before we did it and then we went back out to them and now it’s going through evaluation again.”

Bruce Jette, assistant secretary of the Army for acquisition, logistics and technology, said mistakes were made with the program, which was previously known as the squad multipurpose equipment transport.

With “SMET, we had some ... things that we probably should have done a little better in the solicitation and so we’re just repairing those mistakes,” he told reporters on the sidelines of the annual McAleese & Associates annual defense programs event in Washington, D.C. in March. “Sometimes these things can get kind of complicated to do and [when] you make a mistake here or there you go fix it.”

Jette declined to specify where mistakes were made. He compared recompeting SMET to the Army’s recent announcement that it was going back to the drawing board on its Bradley replacement program, the optionally manned fighting vehicle, by canceling it and revisiting its requirements, acquisition strategy and schedule before moving forward.

Ellen Lord, the Pentagon’s undersecretary of acquisition and sustainment, said it was right that the Army took a step back and recompeted the SMET program.

“The hardest part about any program, whether it’s a development program or production program, whether you’re in industry, whether you’re in government, is to kill something when you realize that it’s not going the way you want,” she said during a meeting with reporters in Washington, D.C., in January. “I applaud the fact that the Army said, ‘This isn’t going the right way. We’re stopping and starting over again.’”

Lord said it is important to learn from mistakes and then move forward.

“One of the things we’re trying to do at the Defense Acquisition University is take programs that haven’t gone well — instead of just looking at those that do go well — and understand why they didn’t, where perhaps we applied the wrong contract types, the wrong acquisition authorities, and to look at a more appropriate one,” she said.

For the four SMET competitors, most of them remained mum as the new competition was underway, with General Dynamics and Textron declining interviews. HDT Global did not respond to attempts to reach them for comment.

The Polaris and Applied Research Associates team said the companies have received positive feedback from the Army about its offering, said Jed Leonard, vice president of Polaris Government and Defense.

“We scored well with soldiers during the user evaluations, specifically they liked the [system’s] optionally manned configuration,” he said in an email.

The optionally manned MRZR X is a multi-use and multi-mission platform with a hybrid system that provides range, stealth and export power options, he said.

“We’ve learned a lot about the capabilities of our platforms and systems throughout the SMET program — how they can integrate with soldiers in manned/unmanned teaming scenarios and the benefits of using the platform for multiple mission payloads,” he said.

Despite hiccups with the program, Jette noted that SMET fills a crucial need for the Army.

“Robotics is critical to where we’re going,” he said. “We don’t have any robotic systems that can just turn the key and operate and they’ll go do whatever you tell them to do.

SMET is one of those programs which gives us a chance to both provide a tool for soldiers in the field and develop our robotic capabilities.”
Jette added that he hoped SMET would one day make other services jealous.

The platform has requirements to transport mission specific equipment, resupply equipment and supplies for extended operations, according to documents in President Donald Trump’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, which was released in February. SMET will be capable of supporting infantry and engineer platoons in infantry brigade combat teams for 72 hours without a resupply.

“SMET will reduce soldier load, increase squad mobility during combat operations and dismounted maneuvers,” the document said. “SMET will have open architectures, a remote control, support casualty evacuation, power generation/offload and modular mission payloads.”

According to the RFP, the Army plans to award one five-year indefinite delivery/indefinite-quantity production contract to an industry competitor in May. All systems are anticipated to be fielded by October 2025.

The target price per system is $112,000, according to the RFP. The contract has a maximum ceiling of $249 million.

In the fiscal year 2021 budget request, the Army asked for $5 million in research, development, testing and evaluation funding for SMET that would support the development, integration, test and purchase of technical insertions and modular mission payloads for the system. The service asked for $4 million in fiscal year 2022; $11 million in 2023; $19.7 million in 2024; and $15.8 million in 2025, for a total of $71 million across the future years defense program, according to the document.

It is the Army’s intent to maximize the use of an open systems architecture for the program, the budget document said. The Army “plans to gather sufficient data during the SMET technology demonstration to reduce development efforts and provide cost savings by incorporating the developed SMET technology to include future technical insertions and modular mission payloads into the program of record.”

Additionally, throughout the life of the program, the service plans to continue to survey the marketplace to identify opportunities for technology insertions and required payloads, relying on competition to drive down costs, the budget document said.

— Additional reporting by Jon Harper and Stew Magnuson

Topics: Robotics and Autonomous Systems, Army News

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