Compete to win for the warfighter

As Reps. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) take up the important and necessary challenge of defense acquisition reform, I strongly encourage them to look closely at the Department of Defense and Army’s current acquisition plan for tactical radios as a model for how the department can drive innovation forward and push costs down while delivering the best equipment to the warfighter. 

Acquisition reform (or its failure) has real impacts on the battlefield.  I was privileged in 1991 to lead the 2d Brigade of the 24th Infantry Division Mechanized into Iraq.  Our advance was limited by fuel and communications, not the enemy.  The radios in my combat vehicles and the radios for the dismounted Infantry were the same type that I used as a platoon leader and troop commander in Vietnam in 1968-70.  The Army replaced them with SINCGAR radios in 1992 after we returned from combat operations.  We can do better than this by taking advantage of competitive practices rather than lengthy bureaucratic processes for fast moving technologies to ensure our armed forces have the best capability when they need it and at a more affordable price in a time of lean defense budgets. 

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I am concerned by recent arguments that the Congress should roll-back its support for DoD acquisition reform on the Army tactical radio program and encourage the Army to defer competition for production, procure more radios through a directed-source LRIP, and thereby increase costs for the program.  Such Congressional action would send a “halt, cease and desist” message to DoD on acquisition reforms that are enormously important for the continued modernization of our armed forces.  Congressional support for reforms and new business practices is especially important at this time when RDT&E and Procurement budgets are under pressure and DoD is seeking new approaches to sustain innovation and lower costs. 

DoD and the Army since 2006 have struggled through the traditional DoD acquisition system to develop new radios that bring full networking capability to the battlefield and replace systems first rolled out in the early 1990s.  Over the eight years that the program has been in development, networking technologies available in the commercial market have raced ahead and prices have dropped for increasingly sophisticated devices. Everyone who recalls the relative low functionality of cell phones in 2006 compared to smart phones in 2014 will immediately understand the Army and DoD’s challenge: how to take advantage of technology advances and lower costs?

The Army in 2011 pioneered a novel, effective solution to this acquisition challenge in its Network Integration Evaluations (NIE).  Building on the Army’s rapid fielding of new technology to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army initiated semi-annual NIE events where soldiers could try out and evaluate new technologies from several vendors to answer the simple yet essential question: what works and what doesn’t for soldiers. 

The Army, using the NIEs, evaluated new offerings developed by DoD vendors using their own funds.  Army ASA(ALT) Heidi Shyu explained that with NIEs: “We can shorten the cycle time of acquisition, which equals cost savings, and gets capability to the hands of our warfighters a lot quicker.”  Greater capability, quicker, at lower cost, means better performance, schedule and price: those are the ultimate goals any of acquisition and those are the performance metrics that guide all DoD acquisitions.

And thankfully, Congress has supported the Army’s innovative NIEs and their use to inform acquisitions: “The committee applauds the Army’s effort to encourage commercial solutions and innovation through Network Integration Exercises (NIE)…The committee also believes that as a result of the lessons learned from NIEs, additional improvements in acquisition policy should be made to couple innovative testing with reduced acquisition time frames.  Therefore, the committee directs the Secretary of the Army to submit a report…that considers potential acquisition strategies for NIE-tested capabilities that allow Army NIE-tested products from non-program of record suppliers to be contracted through full and open competition with the Government in a streamlined manner.”  (HASC, 2013).

However, the traditional DoD acquisition process stymied the Army from acting on the favorable results of the NIEs:  the Army’s tactical radio acquisition program was “locked” without the opportunity for the Army to consider new offerings that the Army’s own NIE had identified.

Congress voiced its strong support when OSD acted to break this lock: “The Committee agrees with the guidance from the Undersecretary of Defense (Acquisition, Technology and Logistics) directing the Army to conduct a full and open competition, open to non-program of record vendors, during full-rate production for the Manpack radio for the remaining inventory.  The Committee strongly recommends that the Army drives cost savings and innovation by considering the full range of available contract vehicles at each option point, including the option of re-competing the work.” (HAC, 2014).

The performance, schedule and cold-cash benefits of acquisition reform are facts for DoD and the Army, not theories.  The Army in 2011 cancelled the long-troubled acquisition program for the Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) due to performance and cost issues, a program deeply embedded in the traditional acquisition process.  In 2012, the Army initiated a new, rapid acquisition process to procure an alternate product from vendors who had developed offerings using their own funds.  The Army awarded a contract and within two months (not years) began receiving radios for test.  The Army’s cost estimate for the original GMR procurement through traditional acquisition was $186K per radio.  The Army’s projected cost an alternate radio with the new, rapid acquisition was $80-90K per radio.  After the rapid competition, the Army’s unit cost is approximately $50K per radio, a 73% savings over traditional acquisition. 

The take-away is clear: the faster the Army moves to competition for full-rate production of radios, the greater the savings.  Continued procurement of systems without full and open competition, whether through LRIP or full-rate production, costs more and stymies innovation.

Our soldiers, marines and Special Operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan have learned that we can accelerate development and field equipment rapidly.  Congress has supported DoD’s new initiatives for acquisition reform and should continue to do so.  We must not slip back into long, drawn-out bureaucratic processes, which have not produced products on time or within cost. Instead, we must use the lessons of the last 16 years to integrate real competition and continuous experimentation to provide our Nation’s Armed Forces a competitive edge. 

Kern is a senior counselor with The Cohen Group. Kern and The Cohen Group support several firms that have participated in Army NIEs, including Harris, Iridium and DRS.