WASHINGTON — The Army commands in charge of acquisition and modernization are taking it day-by-day as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens in the United States, but so far see minimal impact to production lines and modernization efforts underway.
“The Army has been very carefully looking at our industrial base and our ability to maintain programs, both for continued readiness and continued modernization, and, in general, we are still remaining fairly close to being on track,” Bruce Jette, the Army’s acquisition chief, told reports in an April 3 teleconference.
“That doesn’t mean that individual programs or individual issues haven’t arisen, but, at this point, we have, we think, in the long run, we can resolve any of the challenges we have at hand,” he added.
Jette said he has sent letters out to contracting officers, program managers and program executive officers as well as industry providing them guidance and insight “into how we want to work together as a team, through good constructive and continuous and transparent communications, make sure that we know what’s going on in each other’s camp well enough that we can respond quickly.”
One major point of concern is what might happen with sub-tier suppliers to the bigger prime contractors, Jette said, so the Army is doing what it can to understand challenges that these suppliers might be experiencing if they have to shut down production to keep employees safe and healthy should cases of coronavirus crop up.
“We are still working various individual issues,” Jette said. “I track, on a daily basis, about 21 pages… on suppliers down to those lower levels.” That list provides projection for 30, 60 and 90 days, but are updated all the time.
So far, Boeing is the only major defense contractor to shut down an Army production line, according to Jette. The company reported late in the evening on April 2 that it would have to halt its H-47 Chinook production line in Ridley Park, Pennsylvania, for 10 days to better prevent the spread of the coronavirus after some employees tested positive for the virus.
Jette said he didn’t believe the work stopping at the Boeing plant would affect the delivery schedule for the H-47s to the force.
All other lines are delivering on schedule including the newest version of the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle — the A4 — he said.
The fielding of the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, Jette said, will be delivered at a “lower density,” but added, “it doesn’t mean we won’t catch up, it just means that we’re slowing down.”
Jette also said testing would likely be difficult in the coming months due to “the density packing necessary in some cases and how that puts a lot of people at risk.”
The Joint Assault Bridge that was already delayed due to other issues was supposed to go into testing, but that will have to be rescheduled, Jette said.
“It became a concern about moving the unit, moving the equipment together, getting all the testers,” he said, “and again, I go back to this issue that sometimes military operations require you to be in very close quarters for extended periods of time and that kind of violates our desire to keep people social distancing at this point.”
The 2020 calendar year is also packed with major milestones for the Army’s ambitious modernization plans. And as the country’s citizens continue to self-isolate, avoid travel and work from home as much as possible, it becomes hard to conduct various tests or prototyping activities to move major programs along.
“It’s a changing situation, it changes pretty much daily,” Gen. Mike Murray, the Army Futures Command commander, told reporters on the same call.
"It is very much a running estimate because it does change each and every day and we’re not in control of this timeline, so in many ways, we are adjusting to the timeline to try to keep everything on track as best we
The Army is having to take a “slight pause” in some activities, Murray said, such as briefly stopping some testing at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland.
“It’s not because of a system,” he said. “It’s based upon the maintenance of the systems as you test them. … All the vehicles we’re testing have to, daily, go into the maintenance bay to be maintained and so the interaction and the proximity, we just have to work through some mitigation strategies, we should have that done very quickly.”
The Army’s Interim Mobile Short-Range Air Defense System (IM-SHORAD) is one of the vehicles affected by the pause at APG. The system was undergoing automotive testing.
The Army’s plan to get to a critical soldier touchpoint or evaluation of the Integrated Visual Augmentation System this summer may be interrupted, Murray said, based on how long social distancing will be needed.
“It’s not Microsoft itself,” as the company is completely teleworking, but the IVAS deliveries could be affected by sub-suppliers, for example, he said.
But, according to Murray, even if the touchpoint is delayed, he said the Army would do what is possible to avoid delaying the first unit equipped and believes, at this time, that the service will stay on schedule for t he initial fielding.
The Army also has several major tests and evaluations coming up including a long-awaited Limited User Test (LUT) for its Integrated Air-and-Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS). A delay on the LUT would pile onto years of delays for the troubled program meant to serve as the brains of the Army’s future air and missile defense system.
And the Army is planning on another flight test of Lockheed Martin’s Precision Strike Munition (PrSM) later this month, which will deliver a new long-range precision fires capability to the battlefield. LRPF is the Army’s number one modernization priority.
“We are working through mitigation strategies to keep both of those on track,” Murray said. “Every day we’re readjusting and reevaluating whether we can physically do that or not.”
The IBCS LUT and the PrSM test involve an entire community of representatives coming together, he said, but “I’m not ready to say today that either one of those are slipping; those are closer in and we’ll work them through to keep them on schedule as best we possibly can. And if the analysis proves that we can’t, there’s a lot of sequential things that happen in a program; we may have to look at some concurrency.”
Murray noted there are plenty of modernization programs that so far remain unaffected and likely will stay on track, such as Future Vertical Lift efforts to bring two future aircraft online in the mid 2030s, the Army’s new network and initial work to restart the Optionally Manned Fighting Vehicle program to replace the Bradley.
The Army and the Navy were also able to execute a major hypersonic missile test in March.
For now, Murray said, he is focused not on alternative strategies, but how to mitigate impact to current ones.
“I’m looking as far out as this fall just to make sure that we can get ahead of it with mitigation strategies," Murray said.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.