WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE, N.M. (May 14, 2012) -- As the Army aims to balance budget cuts with critical modernization needs, the Network Integration Evaluation is setting the pace for a more efficient acquisition process, senior leaders said.
During visits with Soldiers and leaders here last week, Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips, military deputy to the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology, stressed the value of the Network Integration Evaluation, or NIE, construct to obtain Soldier feedback and rapidly field network equipment to meet their needs.
"We have economic challenges in this nation, and the military budget reflects those as well, but it's critical that we continue to modernize and give our Soldiers the best possible equipment, the best possible platforms with which they can do the hard work of freedom in to the future," McHugh said. "Key to that is doing it effectively, yes, but also doing it efficiently. And this NIE is a critical component to make sure that we can, in an affordable way, continue to modernize and give our Soldiers the best available equipment."
Launched in June 2011, the NIEs are semi-annual evaluations designed to quickly integrate and mature the Army's tactical communications network, the service's top modernization priority. To date, the NIEs have yielded more than $6 billion in cost savings and cost avoidance from the restructure of Army programs and the consolidation of test practices.
The NIEs are part of the Agile Process, the Army's new quick-reaction acquisition methodology to address defined capability gaps and insert new technologies into the overall network at a lower cost. By putting equipment in Soldiers' hands in a realistic operational environment every six months, the Army and industry can make necessary changes and arrive at a solution that can be integrated and procured in months rather than in years, Phillips said.
"That's changing the paradigm, and changing the thinking about how acquisition works," he said.
For example, to meet Soldiers' needs for a more complete and user-friendly common operating picture of the battlefield, the Army is working to converge its networked mission command and intelligence systems, Phillips said.
But the Soldiers' imprint reaches beyond what gear the Army will eventually purchase. The NIEs are also helping establish the necessary doctrine, training and procedures so when capabilities are fielded, troops can get the maximum benefit out of the network, Phillips said.
"That's why it's so important," he told Soldiers from the 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division who are now executing the NIE 12.2. "You're going to set your buddies up for success."
This fall, Army brigade combat teams will begin to receive Capability Set 13, the first group of advanced tactical communications technologies that for the first time deliver an integrated voice and data capability throughout the brigade combat team formation down to the tactical edge, even while units are moving across the battlefield.
Synchronized fielding of capability sets every two years will allow the Army to buy the right amount and type of gear for the brigades that need it first, then incrementally modernize it -- instead of spending resources on technology that may be out of date by the time it is needed.
"One of the challenges the Army has faced in recent years is an acquisition process that hasn't always worked as efficiently and effectively as we'd like," McHugh said. "What these NIEs are intended to achieve is to streamline that process, to make it more agile, to get real-time feedback from those who are going to use (the equipment), and perhaps as important as anything, to integrate it ourselves in a competitive way with the private sector."
Private companies play a critical role in the Agile Process by bringing forward emerging technologies for evaluation at the NIE to determine whether they meet the Army's defined capability gaps, the leaders said. In response to industry feedback following the first two NIEs, the Army is now taking several steps to ensure participating companies see a tangible return on investment.
For NIE 12.2, the Army is providing NIE assessment reports and laboratory feedback within a matter of weeks from the end of those evaluations -- allowing industry enough time to adjust systems and to better align their research and development resources.
The Army is also working processes to help lower the bar for small businesses to participate in NIE. These include taking steps to potentially buy prototypes when multiple systems are needed for evaluation, instituting methods to offset labor and field service representative costs and working with the Army's science & technology community to explore small business grants and development agreements to help offset small business costs.
NIE 12.2 is also the first time the Army was able to employ all early phases of the Agile Process prior to the NIE start, including using new laboratories at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., to their full capability conducting assessments and mitigating risk prior to executing the NIE.
"We have made tremendous strides since we started the NIEs," Phillips said.
McHugh agreed, describing the NIE as "one of the most important things strategically that this Army has taken up in recent years" in delivering enhanced capability and laying the groundwork for broad acquisition improvements.
"These are tough economic times, and we owe it to the taxpayers, as well as to the Soldiers, to make sure we're working in ways that get them those most advanced platforms, and in this case communications equipment, as quickly and as affordably as possible," he said.