Fixing the Army’s Antiquated Acquisition System

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The Army's Rifleman Radio is one of the latest innovations in the service. (Army photo)One of the Army’s top generals described the service’s M113 Armored Personnel Carrier as a “death trap” in an interview with Defense News. Army Gen. H.R. McMaster said the effort to replace it is “already behind,” in the same interview.

The struggle to replace the vehicle the Army depended on to transport mechanized infantry soldiers offers the service’s latest problematic acquisition program as the Army needs to make sweeping upgrades to its vehicle and helicopter fleet.

A sign of progress was seen this summer when the Army awarded the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle contract to Oshkosh to start to replace the service’s aging Humvee fleet. Oshkosh will eventually build 49,100 vehicles for the Army and 5,500 JLTVs for the Marines. While the contract award was seen as a step forward, the procurement numbers drastically trail the initial expectations of the program to more significantly replace the Humvee fleet.

Former Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno acknowledged problems in the service’s acquisition efforts saying the Army tried to build the “perfect vehicle” as it worked to develop the Ground Combat Vehicle and Future Combat System programs. FCS was notably canceled in 2009 and the the Ground Combat Vehicle has been replaced by the Future Fighting Vehicle effort.

Top Army Acquisition Official Heidi Shyu

Top Army Acquisition Official Heidi Shyu (Army photo)

Heidi Shyu joined the Army from the defense industry sector in 2010 and was propelled up to be the top Army acquisition official in 2011. She has since focused on boosting investments on Science and Technology as well as Research and Development budgets. Shyu has also worked to simplify the requirements process and cut down on efforts to buy “perfect” equipment or weapons.

Shyu was a vice president for Raytheon before joining the Army. She has run into Congressional and bureaucratic roadblocks to more significantly change the Army acquisition culture.

Change is especially difficult for a weapons buyer when you are unsure of the budget you will receive each year. The results of sequestration and continuing resolution budgets have left military leaders in all services scrambling to adapt acquisition programs to the new budget figures.

New Helicopters in 2030

No matter the challenges, the Army will need to make serious progress on how it buys weapons and equipment ahead of its effort to replace its entire helicopter fleet by 2030. Army aviation officials want to make whole sale changes to its aviation fleet and potentially replace the traditional helicopter with aircraft that look more like V-22 Ospreys. Defense analysts remain skeptical that the Army can deliver such an advanced and wide ranging acquisition effort based on the service’s recent acquisition track record.

Army leaders from across the service will gather this week in Washington D.C. at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual meeting that will include an update on the state of the force. Generals are expected to hold meetings on acquisition issues and challenges.

Those meetings should include a discussion on ways to inject innovation into the Army process. Shyu has pleaded to boost the Army’s S&T and R&D budgets but the service also must take advantage of the Pentagon’s recent push to tap non-traditional performers.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made two highly publicized trips to Silicon Valley in recent weeks as he has made innovation a priority in his first years in the Pentagon’s top leadership position. The Army must find ways to grow relationships with actors outside the typical defense industry titans if it’s to capitalize on the amount of innovation that is exploding in fields like robotics, 3-D printing and automation.

Lesser known innovation initiatives are popping up throughout the military such as the Navy’s recent push to offer an open architecture model for certain acquisition programs. The service wants to provide a flatter playing field for non-defense industry companies by providing more information on the systems the companies will need to use to deliver products.

The idea is to mimic the way Google has set up their Android network and depended on outside app developers to populate their mobile systems by opening up their architecture versus Apple’s more restricted approach.

Making the Army acquisition process more accessible to companies outside the traditional defense industry could offer new solutions. Many of the most innovative companies do not have the option to help the Army solve some of its toughest problems because the long, drawn out acquisition cycle means the company won’t be able to pay salaries in time and keep the company in business.

The Army is especially interested in offering more mobile systems to infantry soldiers that look like smartphones. Granted, it’s not as simple as grabbing an iPhone or Android off the shelf and putting it in soldiers’ hands when considering the security challenges.

However, it shouldn’t take eight years to develop a program like Nett Warrior to get these mobile systems in soldiers’ hands on the battlefield more regularly. Army leaders have acknowledged they need to adapt their acquisition processes to keep up with the high rate of innovation in fields like this.

The Army is going through a transition as service leaders have said Army units must put a renewed emphasis on training for hybrid warfare scenarios. These scenarios are rapidly changing and require a similarly agile acquisition process to give soldiers the right equipment to succeed.

Stodgy acquisition programs that lead to Army leaders calling vehicles “death traps” put soldiers at risk but the recognition of this might be the boost the service needs to update its antiquated acquisition system.

— Michael Hoffman can be reached at mhoffman@tandemnsi.com

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