December 28, 2007:
The U.S. Army is procurement bureaucracy,
that network of suppliers and government (uniformed and civilian) bureaucrats
that has, for decades, decided among themselves what the troops needed, is not
happy. Ever since the Internet became
widely available a decade ago, the troops have been sharing notes more quickly,
and are finding commercial sources for gear that performs better than what the
army provides. Troops have always bought
superior commercial equipment, usually from camping and hunting suppliers. And
a lot more of that gear has been available in the last decade. Because the word
gets around so quickly via the net, useful new gear is quickly purchased by
thousands of troops.
After September 11, 2001, with a war
on, having the best gear was seen by more troops as a matter of life and death,
rather than just more comfort when out in the field. Noting this trend, and not
wishing to get hit with a public relations disaster, the army has been tracking
which commercial items are most popular, running them through some quick tests
to make sure they are the real deal, and then buying large quantities and
issuing them to the troops. This saves soldiers lots of money, and gets gear
out there which is already "soldier approved." Often, individual divisions and
brigades will use their special "Rapid Fielding Initiative" funds to buy this
stuff, which puts more pressure on the army to buy it for everyone. This
process has also speeded up the introduction of equipment that the army itself
is developing. For example, the new Kevlar helmet, first developed by SOCOM
(Special Operations Command), became a popular item with any troops who used
them. Soon, the Advanced Combat Helmet was being widely issued to army combat
The "Rapid Fielding Initiative" was
itself created by senior officers who were also unhappy with what the
procurement bureaucracy was turning out. And with all that email use, if was
only a matter of time before the politicians got hauled in as well. Unhappy
troops, or their friends and family, would bug members of Congress, and that
would reverberate off army brass and procurement managers.
The ultimate irony of all this is that
the army procurement folks have long proclaimed that "the soldier is our customer."
But in this case, the customer was not given much choice, or even much say, in
what was bought for them. Part of this was the military's fault, because each
of the branches (infantry, armor, artillery, etc) had their own little
procurement bureaucracy, which further muddied the water. In the end, the "customer"
took what they were given and that was that. No more. All because of the
Internet, and letting some sun shine in on a nasty business.