Army wants “adapt and buy” approach to speed telecom acquisition

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army wants to accelerate its network modernization programs by making greater use of commercial telecommunications technology.

In doing so, the Army recognizes the need to step out of its own way by resisting the urge to make highly specific requirements for needed technologies — both satellite and terrestrial — that generally bog down their development.

The desire to leverage more commercial technology came after the Army concluded that a pre-planned modernization path would have taken until 2032 to complete, and ultimately would have cost more than desired, James Mingus, director of the Army’s Mission Command Center of Excellence, said Oct. 10 at the Association of the United States Army conference here.

“We are going to halt programs that are not sufficiently, or cannot be sufficiently remedied; we are going to fix those programs we need to be able to “fight tonight,” and then we are going to pivot to an ‘adapt and buy’ approach,” he said.

Being able to “fight tonight” means maintaining the necessary telecommunications infrastructure to engage in combat at a moment’s notice. Beyond keeping that capability steady, the Army wants to apply commercial solutions, which Mingus said “probably meet the majority” of the Army’s needs.

“After we’ve identified a gap, go find it [the commercial solution], let’s try it, let’s adapt it, and let’s buy it,” he said.

“The commercial sector surpassed us a long time ago,” he added. “We will never keep up.”

John Morrison, Jr., commanding general for the Army’s Cyber Center of Excellence, said current networks were built for counterinsurgency environments, but some of the the requirements that defined those networks were created over a decade ago.

“Over the last 15-16 years, we’ve got some potential adversaries that have gone to school on how we do business, and quite frankly, we let some of our capabilities degrade,” he said. “Now we have to build that resiliency inherently into the network so it is adaptive and flexible, and supports our mission command.”

The Army’s new approach also involves buying smaller quantities at more frequent intervals in order to field updated technology more regularly.

“What we can’t do is continue to buy and acquire things today that actually don’t come to the force for eight years from now, and then keep it for 20 years and it’s outdated before we even get it out there,” said Mingus.

Mingus said the Army will start prototyping different technologies in 2018, and establishing conditions for the pivot to the adapt-and-buy approach.

“So from [20]19 and beyond, who’s going to develop the next best mobile satellite dish? Who is going to develop the next best routing switch? Who is going to develop the next best service stacking software?” he asked.

Morrison said the Army wants to trial more experimental systems, then use knowledge gained from those lessons to improve telecom networks in three to five year “sprints.” That includes “spinning in” new equipment and “spinning out” old tech at a faster clip than before, he said.

“We are going to change our business model for approaching tactical radios,” he said, citing an example. “Gone are the days where we are going to specify technical waveforms saying ‘that’s exactly what we want, and only what we want.’ What we ended up finding was we were self-limiting ourselves. So now we are going to go out and do a best-value approach and we’re going to ask industry partners to bring in those waveforms that they’ve got on a given box and then we’ll make adjustments where the best value from an operational perspective is. That gives us multi-band, multi-mode capabilities, but more importantly, gives the commander choice.”