Adapting the radio development process to meet Army acquisition strategies

The U.S. Army’s recently released Equipment Modernization Strategy sends a strong message about the new way of doing business at the Pentagon. The emphasis going forward is clearly on finding ways to lower costs while maximizing efficiency and capability, and in the coming months, the tactical radio market offers an immediate opportunity to begin executing on this new strategy.

After years of relying on a traditional long-lead-time “program-of-record” acquisition model, the Army is opening the competition for tactical radios to producers of non-developmental items (NDI).  This is wise. By following a few key principles -- proven to work in commercial markets -- the Defense Department will deliver even greater value -- to the taxpayer and warfighter alike -- through affordable products that are equipped to address continuously evolving requirements.

The transition to NDI requires a different mindset for all players in the DOD’s acquisition of technology. It starts in the development process. Early on, the DOD must establish and then clearly articulate the desired technical standards, tactical requirements and acquisition plans so vendors can make informed decisions on where to invest. Then the DOD should get out of the way by encouraging industry to develop against those standards using their own internal research and development funds. This freedom enables companies to innovate, as it provides an incentive to differentiate their products from those of competitors.

The push toward differentiation sets the stage for companies to insert the best technologies from the commercial market, which always moves faster than government development programs. Just as consumers do, the DOD should demand that industry provide platforms that grow and expand over time – that become appreciating assets through software and hardware upgrades. Then, the DOD and industry should work together to develop the strongest possible operational testing and evaluation process. The Network Integration Evaluations have been a tremendous success, but there may be other models that will enable rapid testing and verification of new products developed commercially.

But true NDI is about more than just delivering a fancy new gadget. It also requires that vendors make a commitment to support their products across their entire life cycle – devoting resources and providing support for deployment, maintenance and upgrades  through the product’s entire life.  This commitment should include a clearly established schedule for hardware and software upgrades – the key element in protecting the DOD’s investment.

A good example of where this has worked recently is in the development of the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW). Developed under the Joint Tactical Radio System program, SRW provides soldiers with wideband networking capabilities at the individual level. Harris invested to port SRW to its radios long before it was clear what role the waveform would play. Radios operating SRW are now being deployed to the Army in support of Capability Set 13, backed by the entire Harris organization all the way up to the field. This technology was brought to life under the Harris commercial business model, which is grounded in NDI principles.

This is the correct time to embrace the use of NDI, as 2013 shapes up to be the “Year of the Tactical Radio.” The Army has committed to an ambitious delivery schedule for its Rifleman Radio, Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio and Handheld, Manpack and Small Form Fit programs to support its accelerating modernization efforts.

It will not be easy to do, given that the DOD’s traditional approach to acquisition has historically been geared toward big-ticket items such as ships, airplanes and tanks. This legacy approach has served our military well and will continue to do so -- but it must evolve. Information technology such as radios and networking systems are a fundamentally different breed of product. New capabilities in IT are emerging all the time, resulting in product cycles that are over in the blink of an eye. If a cell phone’s technology is considered old after three months on the market, should we not hold the life cycle of the radios our warfighters use to the same standards?

The radios submitted as part of the three competitive bids this year are poised to serve the Army for years to come, and they will be manufactured in anticipation of increasing operational standards and tactical capabilities. I applaud Frank Kendall, under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, for requiring the Army to open up these radio acquisitions to NDI vendors. In government, as in commercial markets, whenever there is true competition, the customer wins through greater innovation and lower price. Soon, this will be true for users of tactical radios.

About the Author

Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Dennis Moran is vice president of Government Business Development, Harris RF Communications.

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