Army deploys first fruits of agile acquisition process

Monday - 7/2/2012, 12:07pm EDT

Jared Serbu, reporter, Federal News Radio

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It was just over a year ago that the Army began its first Network Integration Evaluation at Fort Bliss, Texas. In just a few months though, hundreds of pieces of equipment the Army evaluated through those twice-a-year exercises will begin making their way to Afghanistan as part of a new agile acquisition process that the Army says will fundamentally change the way it does business.

Upwards of 600 separate systems and vehicles are in what the Army refers to as Capability Set 13, made up of thousands of individual pieces of equipment from Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles to routers and switches, but most it focused on the network and tactical communications. That set will deploy for the first time on Oct. 1, outfitting two brigade combat teams of a few thousand deploying soldiers each.

It's the first on-the-battlefield test of two relatively new concepts in the Army: capability set management and the agile acquisition process.

"If we'd talked to you about 18 months ago, this would have been a PowerPoint presentation and a theory about how we're going to do network modernization," Brig. Gen. John Morrison, who directs the LandWarNet Mission Command for the Army staff, told reporters during a Pentagon roundtable. "What I'm here to tell you today is we are now executing that strategy."

Among the hundreds of systems are two major capabilities the Army has sought for a long time. One: mission command on the move. Through increment two of the WIN-T program, commanders are supposed to get the same situational awareness and communications capabilities they'd have in a static command post, but in a mobile command center as it roams across a battlefield.

Also, the Nett Warrior system promises give individual dismounted soldiers the ability to look at a small, Android-based handheld device and see where fellow troops and enemy fighters are located.

Systems deployed as integrated network

Army leaders say the fact that they were able to rework and deploy those systems in a relatively short timeframe is a testament to their new processes, including the NIE at Fort Bliss. But perhaps more important, they say, is how they're being deployed: Not piece by piece, but as part of an integrated network of pieces that's been tested to work together beforehand.

That pre-assembled puzzle is what Army calls a capability set. The NIE exercises will help produce a new one every year, and rather than handing them out to the whole Army, leaders will outfit only the soldiers who are currently deploying.

"They're not just getting a box," Morrison said. "They're getting an integrated network and they're getting all of the tactics, techniques and procedures that have already been learned in an operational setting. That's absolutely huge."

Col. Dan Hughes, who was scheduled to accept a promotion to brigadier general Monday, said the agile modernization strategy only works because of the NIE. He said not only does the exercise put the gear the Army wants to buy into the hands of soldiers for real-time feedback, it also forces the multitude of historically stovepiped Army organizations which plan, test and buy that gear to come together in one place, at one time, and on one schedule.

"Think about the number of pieces of kit and gear that goes into a unit. Before, we would have 10 program executive officers and 100 program managers show up at different times in an unsynchronized manner. Capability set management is all about bringing all of that together and producing a single capability," said Hughes, who directs the System of Systems Integration directorate for the Army's acquisition organization. "The NIE showed us how I can field things better and faster, and not only what my capabilities are but what my limitations are. Now, the unit that's getting this capability set knows what it's getting and they can field it in a timely manner."

Buying things for the battlefield quickly isn't new in and of itself. DoD been doing it for the past decade, using various special acquisition authorities and workarounds to meet urgent needs for soldiers, sailors airmen and marines.

Doing rapid acquisition well and consistently

What is new, according to Maj. Gen. Genaro Dellarocco, the commander of Army Test and Evaluation Command, is doing rapid acquisition well and doing it consistently.

"We put a lot of equipment downrange that may not have met the 100 percent solution. In most cases it didn't meet 60 percent. In fact, a lot of times, it was even less because we were desperate to save soldiers' lives and get at the enemy," he said. "In doing so, a lot of the equipment wasn't vetted until it got to the battlefield. The tactics, techniques and procedures weren't figured out until the soldier put it in his hands and started using it. Some of it worked and some of it didn't. That experience now is pulled back into the States and we're doing it here. It's been vetted so that we don't have the same mistakes that we've paid for dearly, literally in lives and monetarily."