Solving the Retrograde Riddle
December 30, 2013
- The SUAS concept approaches fleet attrition as an opportunity to inject current technology and provide enhanced capabilities to the warfighter.
SOUTHWEST ASIA (Dec. 31, 2013) -- Recent editions of Army AL&T magazine have cited the rapid evolution of combat systems to bolster the argument for a streamlined and dynamic acquisition process. The 18-month benchmark for technological obsolescence has been used, rightly, to justify the search for innovative business practices. However, one need only look to a current edition of any technology or science magazine to understand that perhaps the 18-month rule of thumb no longer applies, nor is it necessarily limited any longer to the world of computer hardware and software.
At the same time, the acceleration of innovation in unmanned aircraft system, or UAS, technology is increasing across the spectrum of interested parties. From the amateur attempting to weaponize a commercial off--the-shelf, or COTS, quadcopter drone to European researchers programming multiple, linked UASs to create an emergency local communications network, no one seems to be waiting for the U.S. Army to lead the way. The Army's current operational structure is influenced by a wide variety of potential adversaries employing adapted and readily available technology, often in an asymmetric fashion. By necessity, the Army must maintain technological superiority and do so within the highly regulated DOD acquisition system and restrictive fiscal environment.
Over the past decade, the Product Manager Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems, or PdM SUAS, assigned to Project Manager UAS within Program Executive Office Aviation, has surfed the UAS technological wave using traditional acquisition tools. From COTS purchases during the initial stages of the war on terror (e.g., the Raven A) to a successful surge effort during the latter phases of Operation Enduring Freedom (e.g., the gimbaled Raven and Puma), PdM SUAS has been able to gauge well the "next, best thing" for the Soldier in the field. But that wave has crested, offering an opportunity for PdM SUAS to research new, innovative processes to retrofit returning equipment while compressing the traditional acquisition timeline.
THE AGILE FRAMEWORK
Accountability, readiness and attrition are common problems facing the largest and smallest of military systems, including the Raven SUAS. Compounding these fleet management issues for the SUAS world is the additional problem of rapid technological obsolescence. Long recognized as a problem in the software and computer hardware fields, rapid obsolescence of the embedded technology common to military hardware must now be planned for and addressed.
As we prepare collectively for the influx of war-weary equipment from theater, the application of the Agile Process provides some clues to solving the riddle of retrograde while also providing a path forward to the next contingency. Emerging from the software industry in 2001, the Agile Process developed around the interactions of ad hoc, often multidisciplinary work groups and the initiatives of individuals. The agility of the efforts lies in the ability to adapt quickly to shifting requirements and the close coordination with customers or, in combat development parlance, stakeholders. The agile methods are very compatible with Lean Six Sigma concepts, with the two approaches often combined to amplify results.
Although the Agile Process has been discussed extensively in the context of communications (e.g., the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE)), this article looks at a theoretical framework that adopts the best practices gleaned from the Agile Process and synthesizes them into a well-defined retrograde effort. We believe this framework reflects the Better Buying Power (BBP) 2.0 approaches as articulated by Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, and is in harmony with recent changes to Chapter 3 of the Defense Acquisition Guidebook (i.e., renewed emphasis on affordability and analysis of alternatives; see https://dag.dau.mil/Pages/Default.aspx).
In an effort to plug into the BBP acquisition techniques demonstrated in the software and communications sectors, PdM SUAS is investigating a "1/6 Dynamic Retrograde Strategy," or DRS, whereby the Army would replace approximately one-sixth of the fleet each year. The strategy is essentially a compressed incremental acquisition process that takes advantage of the most current products that industry offers.
The SUAS concept approaches fleet attrition as an opportunity to inject current technology and provide enhanced capabilities to the warfighter. Rapid identification of potential upgrades, close interaction with stakeholders, frequent and fast assessment with test agency involvement, flexible contracting and rapid fielding are the characteristics of the SUAS agile materiel management technique.
By adapting the NIE process to the UAS world, PdM SUAS believes it can encourage competition, reduce per-item and research costs, and decrease the "blackboard to field" timeline. Retrograde and the associated reduction in operational tempo provide the first real opportunity to test the viability of such an approach.
Essential to this framework is the evolution from a sole-source approach to seeking the best technology, to the adoption of a firm, fixed-price, or FFP, indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity, or IDIQ, contractual vehicle with multiple vendors participating. PdM SUAS implemented two distinct IDIQ contracts capable of handling the majority of the hardware and services requirements.
In addition to the IDIQ products contract, awarded in early 2013, PdM SUAS recently awarded an FFP services IDIQ contractual vehicle. The latter is essential to depot-level sustainment tasks, including warehousing, shipping and maintenance. The services contract also provides a robust and agile approach for engineering development and training, both of which will be central to the DRS concept.
The two IDIQ contracts provide PdM SUAS flexibility to replace a portion of the Raven and Puma fleets, or sub-components of these fleets, as they are diminished by attrition or become technologically obsolete. In the same way a typical modern office supply of laptops undergoes partial disposal (i.e., 30 percent of laptops replaced each year with faster versions), SUAS hopes eventually to apply a similar approach to fleet management.
The IDIQ services contract provides the muscle at the SUAS inventory control point to identify depot-level repairs upon retrograde. Having gathered the appropriate attrition data, PdM SUAS can use the IDIQ products contract to solicit sources sought to solve a specific problem or need.
In this scenario, we would expect one or two hardware components to bubble to the top of the priority list. In the Raven and Puma realm, the highest attrition rates are typically in payloads (i.e., UAS cameras) and batteries, but the concept is flexible enough to apply to potentially any component, including software and technical architecture. Taking advantage of economies of scale combined with increased competition, we can anticipate the programmed replacement of a portion (i.e., 20 percent) of the SUAS fleet, providing cutting-edge equipment to the warfighter much earlier than with traditional acquisition models and at a reduced cost. Experience early in the implementation of the IDIQ contracts supports this prediction.
In recent months, limited developmental testing by the product office has demonstrated that this concept works. For the typical camera payload, with its sophisticated gimbal mechanism and sharp imagery, we have observed a relatively high level of attrition after exposure to the harsh Afghanistan terrain. At a price of more than $25,000 per payload, we anticipate that a replacement payload can be procured that is better, more resilient and more affordable. The acquisition of the second-generation gimbal payload would replace payloads on approximately 20 percent of the Raven fleet.
Several IDIQ participants responded to this needs request, and one was selected to conduct operational testing at Dugway Proving Ground, Utah. In a matter of months, we should see approximately 700 of these payloads supplementing 300 first-generation gimbal payloads and replacing non-repairable retrograde payloads. Again, similar to replacing some of an office's laptops, PdM SUAS will phase in the newer payload technology to the existing fleet. This effort alone is expected to save the government $20 million to $40 million by reducing the procurement cost for replacement payloads.
ISSUES AND ANSWERS
With reasonable caution, the PdM SUAS has also identified several potential issues that may hinder the full application of this strategy. First, some in the business community may balk at the suggestion that the industrial base will be made stronger by limiting competition to a handful of companies under an IDIQ umbrella. They may see this approach as ultimately detrimental to both smaller innovators and the industrial base as a whole. Second, some may argue that the current proposal does not sufficiently address the traditional danger of "requirements creep."
As we comply with BBP 2.0, we think many of these concerns will be addressed. For example, a five-company base, established through full and open competition with the flexibility for the companies to partner with their choice of hardware providers, is certainly better than a single source. Furthermore, this approach encourages small innovators to team up with the IDIQ core product suppliers, resulting in an exceptionally wide pool of potential sources to meet our needs.
The requirements community has also become more agile as it looks to multiple materiel developers to address capability needs. Looking beyond its historic association with the U.S. Army Aviation Center of Excellence, PdM SUAS is forming relationships with other requirements developers for whom our products offer a viable solution. This approach is bearing fruit as PdM SUAS seeks to support the U.S. Army Signal Center of Excellence in its Aerial Layer Network Transport, or ALNT, program. In this particular case, the SUAS Capability Production Document, or CPD, contains language that nests perfectly with ALNT's lower-level communication requirements.
Approval of the SUAS CPD is expected this fall. With this in hand, PdM SUAS will complete its assessment of 1/6 DRS. Based on data gathered during this phase (e.g., per-unit cost, increased reliability and increased capability), the product office will seek approval to expand the concept to other pressing requirements, allowing us to take full advantage of technology not yet matured.
This would include efforts to develop a Soldier Radio Waveform payload that supports the ALNT squad lower-tier communications architecture; a solar-powered UAS; a Universal Ground Control Station for UAS; and/or an improved chemical detection payload.
The modular nature of the Raven, Puma and future SUAS demands an innovative, modular approach to retrograde operations and, ultimately, acquisition methods. Our experience thus far suggests that DRS may supply the solution.
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