The Army’s acquisition problems have gotten a lot of press over the past few years. But the service’s top uniformed modernization officials say that’s an old story, and that the Army has turned a corner.
Up until pretty recently, it wasn’t just outsiders who were criticizing the Army’s acquisition process. A year and a half ago, the vice chief of staff of the Army said the service needed a “big bang” to shake up a process that tended to take almost a decade to develop new weapons systems. And in 2010, the Secretary of the Army commissioned an independent study to determine what the Army needed to do. It found 76 problems the Army, DoD, and Congress needed to fix.
But in a roundtable with reporters, Lt. Gen. Bill Phillips, the Army’s top uniformed acquisition official, said the idea that the Army’s acquisition corps can’t deliver capabilities on time and on budget is a “myth.” “There are a lot of naysayers out there who say the Army can’t deliver a product. I can give you example after example where the Army has delivered capability,” he said.
Phillips ticked off a list of projects he said validated the Army’s ability to provide what soldiers need in a short time frame, including Mine Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles (MRAP) and their all-terrain variants, more than 60 upgrades to the M4 rifle, the M240L machine gun, drones and upgrades to all of the Army’s major helicopter systems.
“All of those have been done essentially on schedule and delivered in support of our warfighters,” he said. “Yes, we’ve had some issues in the past, but we’re working to make sure we address those issues. And the truth is we have delivered for our soldiers. We’ve delivered yesterday, we’re delivering today, and we’ll deliver tomorrow.”
Those problems of the past were pretty significant, according to the independent army acquisition review conducted by Gil Decker, a former Army acquisition chief, and Lou Wagner, a former head of the Army Materiel Command. Their report found that the Army had poured at least $1 billion per year over the previous 15 years into acquisition programs that it wound up cancelling because of cost or schedule overruns or unnecessary risk aversion.
But Phillips argues those problems are over. He’s just back from a trip to Afghanistan, where he said soldiers have been telling him the Army’s providing the right stuff — they just need more of it.
One huge example of that, he said, is a new variant of the Army’s Stryker vehicle with a hull known as the “double V” — a design he said has saved countless lives.
“If you go back almost 24 months ago, this concept was only about as deep as a PowerPoint slide,” he said. “Today, we have almost 300 vehicles fielded to soldiers in combat, and we’re going to ultimately produce 760 of them. The feedback is truly remarkable. We’ve had 40 incidents to date where the double V hull has encountered an [improvised explosive device], and with the exception of two of those incidents, every soldier has walked away with just minor injuries.”
Fixing problems found by Decker-Wagner report
It’s not that the Army acquisition community disagreed with the conclusions in the dire Decker-Wagner report. John McHugh, the Army secretary, wound up concurring with 63 of the 76 recommendations, and Phillips said Friday that a majority of those 63 will be implemented by this summer. He said the biggest hurdle the Army’s overcome so far has been beginning to get its requirements process under control.
“We have revised the way we look at requirements,” he said. “We look at it through an affordability lens. The best example I can give you is how we defined the JLTV [Joint Light Tactical Vehicle]. That vehicle would probably have cost us close to $500,000 each if we had gone through with the strategy we had in our [technical development] phase. As we revised the way we craft and bring forward requirements, we got it down to where we are confident we can bring this vehicle in for less than $250,000.”
The “joint” part of the JLTV acronym involves the Marine Corps, who weren’t so keen on the job the Army had initially done on procuring that ground vehicle. Phillips said that too has changed.
“They’re in with both feet, and that wasn’t true seven or eight months ago,” he said. “But when they saw that we were listening to our soldiers and marines in the way we were tackling our requirements, they went in full speed ahead. Had we not done that, we never would have gotten there. Much of that is inside the Decker-Wagner report, and that’s where we’ve taken the greatest strides.”
Network still top priority
Phillips said the network is still the Army’s number one modernization priority, and it’s the area the Army continues to point to when it tries to show off how it’s changed the way it does business in acquisition.
The Army’s main showcase on the technology acquisition front is the Nett Warrior program. By putting that battlefield communications program in the hands of soldiers at the recurring Network Integration Evaluation at Fort Bliss, Texas, the Army restructured the program and cut its costs by an estimated $800 million.
For Maj. Gen. Tony Cucolo, the Army’s director for force development, that’s exhibit A for why the Army is still getting beat up undeservedly on the topic of acquisition. “The first Pacific battle in World War II for the Army was called Buna, and we did not do very well,” he said. “But holding us to the standard of Buna is like saying in 1945 that the Army can’t fight. We are making incredible strides in this, and staring at the past and repeating the negatives is without context and also inaccurate.”