The U.S. Defense Department faces a turning point in technology acquisition that will affect battlefield communications, and more specifically, its tactical network, for years to come. The choices are to continue business as usual or acknowledge the urgent need for a truly market-oriented approach that rewards innovation and focuses on improving opera-tional capabilities and lowering cost.
We know downward pressure will deflate defense spending while mission demands will require more agile tactical networks over time. It stands to reason that newer, more capable networked communications will bring unique advantages to the force, satisfying mission requirements over the longer term in ways that may not be apparent today.
But the department faces tech-nology change that is accelerating at a rate greater than that which existing programs of record can keep pace.
The solution is obvious: Adopt a “best value” acquisition model that incentivizes and rewards differentiated features, is low risk in production and delivery, maintains responsive customer support and low total cost of ownership. This will produce immediate savings and a better equipped, more capable force in tactical communications.
It also will encourage greater competition and investment from industry as companies strive to keep the network on the cutting edge by delivering innovations to address operational needs.
Best-value acquisition in tactical communications requires a commercially driven mindset that considers not only price or written specifications, but a broad range of strategically valuable factors. Bidders must, of course, deliver on threshold requirements, but evaluation criteria must weigh innovation — creative solutions that add new capabilities or even meet undocumented capabilities, affordably.
Another less obvious benefit of a best-value approach to tactical communications: more affordable and timelier customer support. Under the commercially driven model, all required certifications and testing costs are borne by the vendor, and the vendor offers warranties that reduce maintenance and repair obligations to the government and manages a product’s obsolescence.
Think of the advantages. For example, we’ve seen surging innovations in smartphone and Android technologies in the decade since the requirements for the Army’s current tactical radio network were set in the early 2000s. This is the essence of what all customers want: real value through dynamic innovation that produces more capabilities for less cost over time.
The department’s Lowest Price Technically Acceptable contracting model may meet short-term budget requirements for essentially commoditized tech products and services, but over the long term, costs will rise as technical requirements must be overhauled to maintain the tactical edge.
How can the department integrate best-value criteria into tactical network acquisition? The Army Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) exercises have helped encourage innovation from commercial models, but it is not an acquisition vehicle. The NIE is simply a way to evaluate products and capabilities and how they perform in an operational environment.
A step in the right direction is the action undertaken by the Joint Program Executive Office Joint Tactical Radio System to scrap the Ground Mobile Radio and move to the Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio (MNVR) program. The MNVR has encouraged new entrants to compete to deliver better solutions in a cost-effective manner. MNVR highlights key defense acquisition objectives to purchase affordable products that meet current end-user needs, with low risks for development and production, and that can scale up for rapid delivery to meet current requirements.
This market-driven approach thrives on knowing the customer, from decision-maker to end user, while self-funding R&D to ensure design and price are aligned with customer needs. Then the product is scaled to market forecasts, not orders alone, and once introduced, robust spiral development continually upgrades the offerings.
The commercial acquisition model balances risk, cost, capability, innovation and delivery. It uses threshold requirements to define a baseline, and objective requirements to evaluate added capabilities. It establishes a catalogue of products so users can select appropriate solutions. Evaluation will be more complex to manage, but outcomes will be far superior.
Benefits to the U.S government and taxpayers are obvious: affordable products that meet current user needs, low risk for development and production, rapid delivery to current requirements and off-the-shelf answers to emerging requirements.
By bringing real competition to purchasing decisions for the tactical network, the department will set a new standard for best value and chart a clear path forward to meet complex mission realities of the future.
Dennis Moran, retired U.S. Army major general and vice president, Government Business Development, for Harris RF Communications. Harris radios are being evaluated in the U.S. Army’s Network Integration Evaluation exercises and Harris employees helped develop this oped. Moran is former deputy director of command, control and computer systems on the Joint Staff.