By BG Daniel P. Hughes, Program Executive Officer Command, Control and Communications -- TacticalApril 1, 2014
Just weeks after deploying to Afghanistan last summer, the commanders and Soldiers of the 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division (4-10 MTN) christened the Army's new tactical communications network their "digital guardian angel." Capability Set (CS) 13 became critical to their daily operations in Afghanistan, enabling them to cover more ground safely and providing a considerable tactical advantage. Their experience shows why the Army pushed so hard over the past two years to deliver CS 13, our first integrated package of communication systems that supports mission command on-the-move and brings the Soldier into the network.
But we owe it to the 10th MTN--and the units next in line for new network technologies--to go further. How do we continue to enhance and refresh the network with each capability set? How do we make the network more capable but less complex to use, train, maintain and sustain? How do we focus innovation on capabilities that could be transformative for the network of 2020 and beyond?
The answers rest in our partnership with industry. Examine Moore's Law--that the number of transistors incorporated in a chip will approximately double every 24 months--or simply look at your own cellphone: When the pace of progress is exponential, the Army cannot keep up by itself. To field the latest tactical communication technologies to Soldiers, we know we need industry's agility, innovation and investment, especially in a fiscally constrained environment. Our approach to driving industry involvement in the next phase of network modernization is built on two principles: consistency and competition.
A NEW CONSTRUCT
Consistency is aimed at making the Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) a more productive venue for businesses of all sizes to demonstrate their capabilities. While the Army is procuring commercial routers, antennas, network operations tools, operational energy solutions and other items as a result of the NIE process, it has taken several NIE cycles to refine the supporting processes for this new way of doing business. During that evolution, we have listened to feedback from our industry partners and are now implementing a new construct for NIE 15.1 and beyond.
This new construct will give industry additional time to respond to more focused capability gaps. It will also be synchronized with Army program objective memorandum (POM) planning so that successful systems can transition smoothly into our portfolios.
The other way we plan to engage the network industrial base is through more frequent competition. Government-owned waveforms and a standardized Common Operating Environment (COE) set the conditions for the Army to conduct more competitions for radios, apps and other network components--putting the "buy fewer, more often" acquisition philosophy into action.
This approach will give more vendors the opportunity to participate in building the network and give the Army the flexibility to choose from multiple technologies. By structuring contracts to facilitate competition among qualified vendors on a regular basis, we will also reduce system costs and ensure that we encourage the innovation that will lead to progress with each capability set. For example, Company A could win a delivery order competition one year and Company B could win the following year, but both would have an incentive to propose improved, affordable products for the year after that.
EVOLVING THE NIE
The Army remains committed to the NIE process, which has proven its value within the Army and industry since its launch in 2011. Driven by Soldier feedback, lessons learned in past NIEs have allowed the Army to mature certain programs, restructure or terminate others and reallocate resources to new priorities. CS 13 was integrated, refined and validated through the NIEs--reducing the integration burden on the 10th MTN and 101st Airborne Divisions while helping develop tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) for using the gear in the field.
Industry partners who submitted their systems for assessment not only have received invaluable feedback from Soldiers and Army laboratories, but also have demonstrated the breadth of available commercial technology, informing the Army's acquisition strategy for several key programs. The Army has spent $39 million to procure non-program of record, NIE-tested radios to field. Recently, Congress provided funding that gave the Army $9.3 million to procure several systems under evaluation from previous NIEs. The Army also has begun to issue requests for proposals (RFPs) as a formal mechanism for streamlined competitive procurement of non-program of record systems that show promise at the NIE.
The first RFP process resulted in six contract awards to different vendors for their vehicle tactical routers to be evaluated at NIE 14.1 in fall 2013.
While there has been great success, we have also hit some speed bumps in ramping up the NIE process. Frustrated vendors told us that the government's capability gaps were too broadly defined, the funding was too scarce and the schedule too unpredictable. We understand industry's challenges, and we are adjusting the NIE to better facilitate vendor participation while meeting the needs of the Army within budget constraints.
Beginning with NIE 15.1 in fall 2014, the Army will add periodic network baseline assessments to pinpoint capability gaps that industry can zero in on for near-term network modernization. NIE 15.1 will assess the integrated network baseline to evaluate the performance of existing network capabilities and identify remaining gaps. This effort will be informed by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command's Network Capability Review, an ongoing study that aims to identify the proper mix of systems and their requirements to provide integrated tactical network capabilities within various formations.
The capability gaps identified at NIE 15.1 will be fixed in place and released to industry so that their proposed solutions can be evaluated over the following two NIEs, 15.2 and 16.1. By identifying consistent gaps for two consecutive NIEs rather than releasing a new set with each exercise, the Army will increase industry's lead time in developing and submitting mature capability solutions. NIE 16.2 will include another network baseline assessment. Then the updated gaps will be fixed in place and released to industry for two more NIEs, and the pattern will repeat for subsequent cycles.
While the original NIE process was built to meet theater needs quickly, with the transition out of Afghanistan, the refined process will allow us to be more deliberate in determining and filling our network capability gaps. The new schedule and fewer, better-defined gaps will also allow the Army to better align NIE results with POM planning to inform procurement and fielding decisions for future capability sets.
With these positive changes, it is still important to reiterate that the value of the NIE goes beyond acquiring systems. As the Army transitions from fighting two wars to preparing for future threats, the NIE will provide the operational laboratory to incrementally enhance the network, respond to the emerging needs of regionally aligned forces and assess dynamic "leap-ahead" capabilities--not just from industry, but also the Army science and technology community.
NIEs will continue to integrate capability sets before fielding, refine TTPs, evaluate force design options and non-materiel requirements such as training, and give Soldiers a "vote" by collecting their feedback on all of these areas. NIEs remain a vital component of the Army's modernization efforts.
COMPETITION FOR RADIOS
Since the advent of DOD's Better Buying Power initiative, there has been increased attention to the benefits of competition. The rationale is clear: An environment in which multiple vendors compete to satisfy the same requirement can reduce cost, spur innovation, cultivate the industrial base and eliminate the single points of failure that come with dependence on one vendor. But to make a competition as effective as possible, the strategy must be tailored to the specific product and the current market. Fortunately, we are now hitting that "sweet spot" with a key part of the network--tactical radios.
The current marketplace is primed for the Army to competitively procure advanced networking radios. The technical maturity achieved in the commercial, software-programmable radio field over the course of the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) developmental effort has enabled industry to develop effective hardware solutions--radio "boxes"--more easily. Meanwhile, the Joint Tactical Networking Center (JTNC) maintains a data repository of secure networking waveforms and applications that adhere to open standards set by the government. The repository, along with the JTNC laboratory and accreditation resources, are accessible to vendors, allowing the waveforms to run on multiple hardware models that industry produces. Through our engagement with industry, including at the NIEs, we know that the technology now exists for a competitive marketplace of interoperable, affordable radios.
Thus, the foundation is in place to execute the Army's tactical radio strategy. In September 2013, we awarded an initial contract for Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radios (MNVR), using a competitive non-developmental item acquisition approach designed to procure lower-cost, commercially available radios that meet the Army's requirement for a mid-tier tactical network solution.
Now the Army is focused on executing full and open competitions, in which all industry partners can participate, for the full-rate production phases of the Handheld, Manpack, Small Form Fit Rifleman and Manpack radio programs. The goal is to decrease costs and drive down size, weight and power requirements while increasing system functionality and simplicity.
While the details are still being finalized, the Army will conduct a full and open competition for each radio, and award contracts to qualified vendors meeting the Rifleman and Manpack radio requirements. Qualified vendors then will compete for delivery orders as needed by the Army, after qualification and operational tests to confirm compliance with technical and operational requirements.
This constantly competitive environment promises to promote an active, engaged industrial base that has an incentive not only to lower prices but also to innovate for each capability set, ultimately improving the radios we deliver to Soldiers.
Such multilayered, multiple-vendor- competition has shown success before, such as with the Consolidated Interim Single Channel Handheld Radio (CISCHR) contract, executed under the JTRS program. Initiated in 2007, CISCHR provided a contract vehicle for the joint services to procure government off-the-shelf and non-developmental, software-defined tactical handheld radios. While not a perfect comparison, CISCHR illustrates the potential advantages of a multiple-award contract that allows for delivery order competitions among vendors.
Although this type of strategy can require more effort to manage, the money saved through competition far exceeds the administrative costs. CISCHR yielded an average savings of more than 40 percent, compared with the contractual ceiling prices over the life of the contract. It is also noteworthy that the radio technologies and features improved as a result of the vendors' own investments.
Radios aren't the only network component for which the Army stands to benefit from increased competition. With the COE providing a comprehensive, standards-based open architecture, the Army can leverage industry's state-of-the-art capabilities and best practices for other computing environment technologies.
For example, many mission command systems previously developed by a single vendor as stovepiped boxes will be delivered instead as software applications, with multiple third parties competing to build and rapidly enhance them, broadening the market. The COE will also facilitate greater interoperability among various manufacturers' systems, creating possibilities for common interfaces and common training as we work to simplify the network for the end user.
The network remains a critical Army modernization priority. It is a core element in enabling the Army to produce a future force that is smaller but still highly capable. As we build on lessons learned from the first CS 13 brigades to deliver these essential technologies to more units across the force, the Army will engage industry through consistent NIEs and frequent competitions in order to improve and simplify network capabilities. Working as partners, we will continue to provide our Soldiers with the information they need to change the game.
For further information, go to http://peoc3t.army.mil/.