The United States Army is faced with a challenging dichotomy when it comes to awarding equipment supply contracts. On the one hand, the Army needs technologically advanced equipment that will exceed threshold capabilities and enhance the mission effectiveness of our soldiers. On the other hand, the Department of Defense, like all federal agencies, is beholden to budget constraints that could potentially threaten to inhibit the Army’s drive toward tenfold-improved capabilities.
In this scenario, it can be tempting for the Army to default to a “minimum characteristics” approach and opt for the lowest price when assessing new contracts. But there is a reason why “lowest price, technically acceptable” procurements have been deemed by Congress as no longer valid for military technology purchases.
Put simply, the lowest price is not always the best option. Our troops depend on the provisioning of high-quality equipment that exceeds threshold capabilities. They need advanced — not average — equipment to be successful when engaged in an all-domain battlefield against peer or near-peer competitors.
Therefore, the Army should not focus on “minimum characteristics” and baseline-acceptable standards when assessing its procurement options. Instead, it must assess the overall value of the technology it is considering and, most importantly, take into account the technology’s ability to close capability gaps for warfighters in combat.
Here are two critical factors the Army should incorporate into its decision-making process to ensure its equipment provides high-end, long-term value:
1. Overall tactical effectiveness: The most important factor to consider when contemplating any equipment supply contract is how the technology will enable troops on the ground. A low-cost solution that does not help protect our warfighters or give them a tactical advantage against a rapidly evolving enemy is a stopgap at best and could end up putting our troops at risk.
Instead of focusing exclusively on upfront costs, the Army should ask:
- Will this technology move the needle in helping its fighting units achieve the Army’s desired tenfold-improved capabilities?
- Will it provide troops with a measurable and meaningful advantage over our adversaries?
- Will it successfully address and rectify any current and future capability gaps that keep warfighters from successfully competing with — and ultimately overcoming — those adversaries?
Affirmative answers to these questions will help the Army effectively identify solutions that will enhance the overall effectiveness of our warfighters and increase their chances of success on the battlefield. The answers may point to technologies that might not be the least expensive options, yet may end up being the best overall investments.
2. Long-term reliability and scalability: Indeed, the chances are high that the solution that ticks these various boxes may end up presenting a higher upfront investment, yet ultimately end up costing far less over the long term.
That is because tools that carry a lower initial price tag and appear to meet minimum characteristics may come with hidden, long-term costs. They may need to be upgraded every couple of years, or as tactical requirements evolve, necessitate additional financial costs and investments in retraining, which takes time and resources. Or they could be outdated in a year, resulting in warfighters using legacy technology that puts them behind the curve not long after they first become familiar with the tools.
It is far better for the Army to look past the short-term costs and investigate the long-term reliability and scalability of the solution under consideration. Is the technology easily upgradeable and scalable, with minimal cost and disruption? Is it coming from a vendor with a proven track record of reliability, and does the technology itself have a reliable history? Perhaps most importantly: What are the chances the technology will fail our warfighters when they need it most?
Asking these questions gets to the heart of the matter. The goal is not to invest in the cheapest technology; it is to make calculated decisions that consider the overall value of the technology over its entire life cycle.
Taking this approach will yield a couple of notable benefits. First, it will undoubtedly improve effectiveness for the warfighter and provide our troops with an advantage over our enemies — the primary objective. But it will also drive greater competition in the market, resulting in higher-quality solutions and greater innovation. Increased competition will help drive down costs, which will allow the Army to equip its soldiers in a highly effective manner while staying within budgetary constraints.
In that sense, approaching equipment supply contracts in the manner proposed above is both a tactical and strategic win. Troops are furnished with innovative and reliable technologies they need to gain a tactical advantage over adversaries, which — make no mistake — are also committed to investing in solutions that give them an edge.
Meanwhile, by taking a long-term, strategic approach, the Army will create an environment that drives down prices, allowing the Department of Defense to continue to purchase cutting-edge technologies that deliver years of valuable benefits at reasonable costs.
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Joe Anderson served as deputy chief of staff for the service. He is now president and CEO of Rafael Systems Global Sustainment.