Procurement: Letting The Troops Run With It

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April 10, 2017: A former Navy SEAL and his brother formed a company (Shield AI) in 2015 to develop a quadcopter that would use off-the-shelf sensors and measuring electronics to fly into buildings and automatically (under control of the custom flight control software) measure, map and take video of the interior. Troops have been asking for something like this for years but, as is often the case since 2001, former military personnel, often Special Forces or SEALs, start small firms to develop and manufacture these items and then sell them to the military and civilians.

One thing that encouraged this attitude was another post-2001 development, RFI (the Rapid Fielding Initiative). RFI was created in 2002 by the U.S. Army as a mechanism for quickly getting what the troops needed. The Internet makes this possible, for the troops grew up with cell phones and the Internet and know how to quickly connect with each other and sort out what they all had experienced and determine what was needed to operate more effectively. Out of this came the Rapid Equipping Force program (REF) which monitored troop needs and quickly found and shipped out needed weapons and equipment and the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) which gave unit commanders (division and below) cash and authority to buy non-standard items the troops needed fast. With most of the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan over there is budget pressure to eliminate both of these programs. The troops and their commanders agreed that would be a big mistake.

In Iraq and Afghanistan the military, especially the army, was quick to take advice from the troops actually doing the fighting. That was recognized even before Iraq and led to the RFI, which recognized that the American army did not always have the best weapons and equipment available and that the troops and low-level commanders had a better idea of what was needed than the senior generals and politicians. RFI was intended to do something about that and do it quickly. Since 2002 the army approved the purchase of over 500 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. In 2011 the army began deciding which of these RFI items to make standard equipment (about a quarter of them) and which to discard (the rest, although many were obsolete and improved replacements were being sought). The marines went through the same process and found that most of their RFI items were worth keeping. This is due to the marines having a tradition of doing more with less (since they have much less money to spend per person than the army).

Not everyone was a fan of RFI. Traditional (government and contractor) weapons and equipment developers did not like RFI. Procurement bureaucrats like to take their time, even when there's a war going on. This is mainly to cover everyone's ass and try to placate all the big shots and constituencies demanding certain features. In wartime, this process is sped up somewhat but it is always slower than it has to be.

And then there is the fact that the troops are willing to accept a partial solution. Engineers often point out that they can deliver much more quickly if they are allowed to use the old "70 percent solution" rule. This bit of engineering wisdom is based on the fact that some capabilities of a weapon or other item are not essential but take an inordinate amount of effort and expense to create. Thus a "good enough" item can be produced very quickly, if you are willing to sacrifice 30 percent of the capabilities you thought you needed (but probably don't). Despite official opposition, the 70 percent solution has become all the rage since 2003 because the troops have found that this is frequently good enough and a real lifesaver in combat. Since RFI this often meant adopting civilian gear (radios, hunting accessories, electronics, clothing, tents) that was not “militarized” (made much more expensive and not arriving for a long time.)

The age of change began with the troops who, thanks to the Internet and a flood of new civilian technology, got into the habit of just buying new stuff with their own money and using it in combat. If the army had developed a lot of this gear it would have had more features, probably been more rugged, and taken a lot longer to arrive, if it ever did at all. But for the troops, the off-the-shelf gear filled important needs, even if it was a 70 percent solution.

Troops have been finding and buying non-standard gear for decades but it had been growing more frequent since the 1990s. The army became tolerant of it, largely because this unofficial civilian gear (sleeping bags, boots, rifle cleaning kits, etc.) often was better and even officers used the stuff. As the number of these items increased tremendously after 2003, and more officers came back from commanding combat units with personal experience with this sort of thing, a growing number of senior commanders began demanding that the army procurement bureaucracy get rid of the traditional 10-15 years it takes to find, develop, and approve new technology for the troops. The troops have long understood this but now four star generals agreed and often did so from personal experience. The generals did create the REF in 2001, which was successful as long as it paid constant attention to what the troops were thinking and doing.

In hindsight you could see RFI coming. There were three existing trends pushing it. First, there was a lot more new technology coming on the market that troops could use. Some of it came from the companies that created equipment for the hiking and camping market (boots, rucksacks, all manner of outdoor clothing). Other items came from hunting and police suppliers (new gun sights and other accessories). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear, plus new kinds of flashlights and, eventually, smart phones.

The second trend was that the troops were all on the Internet and, like never before, were in touch with each other via military related message boards, listservs, Facebook pages, and chat rooms. Troops have always been coming up with new ideas about how to use civilian gear for military purposes. But before the Internet each soldier's discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army-wide, and world-wide, within hours.

Finally, there was SOCOM (Special Operations Command), which had long possessed its own REF/ RFI-like powers and budget to go with it. SOCOM could buy neat new weapons, as well as equipment. SOCOM could also afford to buy expensive stuff (the first night vision gear and satellite phones). SOCOM personnel were on the Internet as well. By 2001, thousands of soldiers were speculating, via the Internet, how much more effective they could be if they had SOCOM's freedom to quickly get new stuff that allowed them to do their job better.

When American troops went into Afghanistan in October, 2001, it was several hundred SOCOM Special Forces operators that did most of the work. Once the media got to the Special Forces guys, stories started coming out about the non-standard gear they were using. American infantrymen being sent to Afghanistan saw those stories, as did people in the Pentagon. Connections started to get made. Among other things, someone in the Pentagon realized that the army would not look too good if too many journalists interviewed too many troops who had bought civilian equipment with their own money, while the Special Forces was getting it paid for by the government. This was especially embarrassing if the new equipment from a civilian supplier was obviously superior to the stuff the government was handing out. With this kind of incentive the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success.

Some generals consider the official procurement bureaucracy beyond help. It is encumbered with generations of laws and rules, which are supposed to curb fraud, enhance efficiency, or whatever and have just contributed to the many delays that make everything take far longer than it should. You can't mess with the laws, at least not too often and especially not in peacetime, without getting brought up short by Congress, defense industry lobbyists, and the courts. For the politicians the defense budget is a principal tool for getting re-elected. That procurement money means jobs for American voters and the politicians representing those voters know it. Congress will not relinquish too much control over this pot of gold.

Over a decade of war has changed a lot of things in the U.S. military but none more troublesome, to the military bureaucracy, than the new attitude of "we want it now." Senior commanders took on the military procurement bureaucracy in order to get new technology to the troops sooner. It's not a new fight but having so many generals involved in trying to speed things up, now that is new. And often the generals were asking for some very expensive stuff. But these officers had done their homework and it was hard to say no to officers who are under fire every day. The 70 percent solution became a legitimate tool on the battlefield. But now the procurement bureaucracy wants to go back to the bad old (but safer) days of taking your time and covering your ass.

 

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