The Army’s NIE tightrope: Striking the right balance

Army leaders must tame growth and involve more small vendors to keep the Network Integration Evaluation successful.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — The Army’s Network Integration Evaluation is the service’s golden child right now. It’s the example service leaders point to anytime questions come up about the service’s woeful acquisition track record.

In only its second year, generals have tried to climb over each other to hitch their units or agencies to the NIE bandwagon. But observers worry the NIE’s early popularity could cause its downfall if Army leaders don’t restrict the evaluation’s growth.

Officials designed the NIE to give the Army an “agile” acquisition system to keep up with the pace of technology as the service develops the next generation battlefield communications system. The Army’s network is its top modernization priority — above even the sexier Ground Combat Vehicle.

So to help get the next-gen network, the Army adopted a premise that may seem simple and obvious to outsiders: The Army outfits a brigade of combat-hardened soldiers with the latest tech gadgets. It sends them out to White Sands Missile Range, N.M., to simulate battle scenarios. Then leaders ask troops two simple questions: Did the gadgets work and did they make the job easier?

The Army plans to hold two NIEs per year. Soldiers with 2nd Brigade, 1st Armored Division stationed at Fort Bliss, Texas, completed the first NIE iteration in June 2011 and the second last November.

The watershed moment of the NIE’s short history occurred when Army leaders cancelled Boeing’s Ground Mobile Radio after soldiers at the NIE said the radio overheated too often and took too long to reboot. Defense industry executives found out quickly that the Army meant business before the NIE truly had hit its stride.

Still, service leaders are already wrestling with attracting more small businesses; keeping the NIE from growing too big; and preventing it from getting too cozy with the defense industry.

NIE leaders must toe a line between growing too big and not incorporating the right agencies to properly test the network. A common talking point for Army leadership is the network touches everything. Therefore, any and every unit could justify throwing its hat in the NIE ring and earning an NIE bullet for its colonel’s next officer evaluation report.

Grow too big, though, and the Army can’t react quickly enough to keep up with the pace of technology.

“It’s a danger because it’s the nature of the Army to keep growing,” said Dennis Moran, Harris Corp’s vice president for global business development.

The traditional “program of record” approach to acquisition will not work when developing the Army’s network. Col. Dan Hughes, director of the Army’s System of Systems Integration Directorate, said that approach would lead to the Army fielding soldiers with Motorola flip phones rather than the Android smartphones soldiers tested in the first two NIEs.

Before, Army leaders huddled at Training and Doctrine Command, filled out a list of requirements, and then handed it off to industry to build the next great weapon or vehicle. Too often that meant deadlines and costs spiraled and programs like Future Combat Systems ended up in the acquisition graveyard.

Army leaders will now look to industry to see what already exists.

“Our efforts are best focused on seeing what’s evolving in the technology realm to determine how it could best be used in a war fighting application,” said Gen. Robert Cone, head of U.S. Training and Doctrine Command.

The Army doesn’t want to handcuff itself to massive contracts as it builds its network because service officials know the technology will change. Hughes said the service would rather buy an imperfect product but retain the freedom to constantly upgrade it.

“We’re not looking to hit home runs,” Hughes said. “The plan is to buy less more often.”

Army leaders know this new approach will ruffle some feathers inside the defense industry, and they’re all right with that — to a point.

“The folks that have programs of record that are longstanding, that they’ve had for 10 years, are obviously not happy to see this kind of process,” Hughes said.

But the Army also understands it can’t completely stiff-arm the defense industry or it will have no new gadgets to test at the NIE.

Defense companies have bristled at the lack of commitment from the Army in many cases to buy anything out of the NIE. Cone said he understood it’s a serious financial risk to full develop a widget and then not have a market for it if the Army ends up saying no.

“[The NIE] requires in many cases for industry to step to the table and make an investment without the Army making a firm commitment to necessarily buy something,” Cone said. “They may show us a technology and we say that’s not going to work and they’re invested in it.”

The TRADOC commander said the Army is incorporating more commitment to buy specific pieces of equipment to entice more companies to take part in the NIE.

Defense executives have to make a serious investment from the beginning of the NIE process. It can cost $25,000 for the white papers that companies must submit to the Army to nominate their widget for the NIE. These costs can be prohibitive for the innovative, small businesses the Army wanted to attract in the first place.

“That is a concern. We’re working on it. I don’t have a solution yet,” Cone said.

Hughes said he’s spoken with small business leaders and the service is considering establishing separate playing fields for the small and larger defense companies.

“We’re working with small businesses to lower the bar,” Hughes said. “How do we bring these folks into the process at a different level to take advantage of the innovation that we get out of small business?”

Moran said more small business have reached out to Harris since the start of NIE to partner with the larger defense companies and give up potential profits in order to access Harris’ deeper coffers.

Army leaders want to put more pressure on the defense industry to perform and avoid repeats of the FCS travesty, but Cone said the Army understands it must work together with those companies to build its network.

“It’s going to take compromise from both parties’ accounts.”