Just before the Army’s AUSA convention kicked off last week, the service issued a sources-sought notice for a single-channel, vehicle-mounted radio, marking the first time that the Army will actually spend money on something that was tested during the biannual Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) at Ft. Bliss, the cornerstone of the Army’s modernization project. The service anticipates a contract award—or awards—by September, with first equipment deliveries beginning in October 2012 for 5,000 radios.
Despite this success and the fact that the Army loudly trumpets the NIE process every chance it gets, “there are some growing pains,” according to Col. Dan Hughes, director of the Army's System of Systems Integration Directorate. (The NIE tests have been around only since last July, but the Army has been working on the modernization program in much the same form since 2008.)
Many of those growing pains were catalogued in a report released in January by the Pentagon’s Director of Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E), which said that the service should “be cautious about inserting too many untried, experimental systems into the NIEs” because previous evaluations maxed out the Army’s evaluation capacity with too many different technologies.
But putting a variety of technologies in the hands of a brigade, and connecting everything to the service’s developmental network, is what the NIE is all about. Army leadership says that it allows them to see what works, and what doesn’t, very quickly. “If we test in isolation any more, shame on us,” Hughes said, adding that the program has received a “tremendous amount of support from senior leadership.”
The “frictions” in the program, as Hughes refers to them, are partially due to the uncomfortable transition from “the old way of doing business,” which included long developmental timelines that didn’t make use of new—and often better, or at least cheaper—commercial applications.
Gen. Robert Cone, head of the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, identified other frictions in the program. In a frank exchange with reporters, he said that the NIE is in some ways not meeting “the expectations of the industrial base, and we’re going to have to address that … it’s going to take compromise by both parties.”
Part of the problem is that the program requires industry to submit white papers that can cost up to $250,000 to produce, in order to have its already mature technology considered for inclusion in the next evaluation. This “requires industry to step up to the table and make an investment without the military making a commitment that we’ll buy something,” Cone said, adding that “the question is, how do we come together on a middle ground that they will continue to participate?”
Cone said that while the Army recognizes what industry brings to the table “in terms of their knowledge of what is possible, how do you merge that into writing a requirement, determining an adequate testing strategy and an adequate acquisition strategy?”
The White House’s fiscal 2013 budget request asks for $214 million to fund the NIE, which is an indication that the Pentagon and the White House are willing to give the Army some time to iron out the bugs. As for the defense industry, as Hughes put it, “we’re learning as we go along.”