“The service wants industry, academia and its own internal fiefdoms to work together better and earlier.
The goal is to explore the art of the possible on weapons programs before the Army locks in official requirements that have — far too often — proven too ambitious, too expensive or too inimical to innovation.
The next time the Army holds a conference on how to improve its relations with industry, it should actually let industry into the most important session, Maj. Gen. Bo Dyess told his four-star superiors at the Army Innovation Summit here. It just has to get around its own lawyers.
But the largest service keeps finding its biggest enemy is itself. “I frankly have concerns about the Army,” Pentagon acquisition chief Frank Kendall told the conference, especially because it has less in-house engineering expertise than the Air Force and Navy have to manage complex programs. While the entire Defense Department has procurement problems, Kendall continued, “the Army, I think, has a particular problem with this because they have so many different communities” — from tankers and helicopter pilotsto logisticians and cyberwarriors — “and they’re all competing for resources.” It takes a bureaucratic tour de force just to get all the Army’s different tribes working with each other, let alone with outsiders, which is why the first two Innovation Summits focused on coordination within the massive Army Materiel Command.
With high-powered participants like Kendall, Army Undersecretary Patrick Murphy, Army Materiel Command chief Gen. Dennis Via, and Training & Doctrine Command chief Gen. David Perkins, this third Army Innovation Summit showcased commitment to reform from the service’s top leaders. “We have to act with a sense of urgency at those earliest stages,” Murphy told me. “The more you collaborate, the more you innovate.”
But with a last-minute decision by Army lawyers to bar industry attendees from helping to write recommendations, the summit also made crystal clear how many devils remain in the details.
Conference organizers planned to have industry representatives in the working groups writing recommendations, Dyess told four-stars Via and Perkins in the final session of the summit. But then, said Dyess, “about ten days ago we got the calls: ‘hey, the lawyers at AMC have talked to the lawyers at TRADOC, and their interpretation of the FAR (Federal Acquisition Regulation) says that we should not let them in.’” Fortunately for next time, Dyess added, Army acquisition executive Katrina McFarland may have a work-around.
“I’ve got great lawyers at TRADOC, I’m sure Dennis (Via) has great lawyers,” Gen. Perkins said, “but Army policy should be very clear so it doesn’t take a lawyer to figure it out….We just can’t do this event by event by event.” Perkins has been pushing requirements reformsince 2014. (Nor is he exactly a lover of process and rules: He took his brigade into downtown Baghdad in 2003 without waiting for his superiors to approve.) Staying true to form, Perkins turned to the rest of the room and told everyone: “If we could actually hear any input from the folks in industry and academia that the lawyers barred from the meeting, that would be helpful.”
“We really want academia and industry to participate,” agreed Gen. Via. “We’ll find how we can do that.”
In the open sessions where they could participate, industry representatives certainly weren’t shy. They say they want dialogue with the Army from the earliest stages of a project — before the service sets requirements or appoints a program manager. They want to talk about engineering, not just generalities, so they can understand what the Army really wants and so the Army can understand what industry can really do. They want the Army to tell them what problem to solve, on what schedule and at what price — but not to prescribe the specific solution.
“The biggest issue is restrictive requirements that are so narrow and so focused, that they’re not focused on the what that the Army wants, but on the how,” said Dan Zanini, a retired Army officer now at SAIC. “Then you really limit where you can go” with innovative alternatives.
“We look at RFIs (Requests For Information). We look at RFPs (Requests for Proposal). We look at requirements; they’re tightly refined and there’s no room… to innovate, to make this better,” said Jesse Nunn, president of Future Research Corporation.
“This first part of breaking down barriers is having this summit,” Nunn continued. “That offered me the opportunity to come here as a small business and participate.”
In the commercial world, “we have many organizations and events like this that bring people together (to) talk about the issues,” said David Bem, chief technology officer of PPG. In the defense world, however, events like the Army Innovation Summit are rare and precious. “Today we find (what the Army wants) through our contacts at the laboratories, or we look for solicitations, and I would argue that’s a fairly inefficient process,” he said.
The Army can collaborate and communicate with them, industry participants said. The summit is testimony to that — despite the legal snafu over who could help write recommendations. On a larger scale, BAE System’s Mark Signorelli praised the “constant” and “daily” communication that developed the lifesaving MRAP (Mine Resistant Armor Protected) vehicles to replace vulnerable Humvees in Iraq. More recently, just this month the Mobile Protected Firepower program (MPF) shared draft requirements documents with industry at an unprecedentedly early stage, long before they’re fixed.
“We have to be sharing ICDs (Initial Capabilities Documents), CPDs (Capabilities Production Documents), CDDs (Capability Development Documents), so you can drive industry’s investment (towards) what the Army wants,” said Boeing VP Bill Phillipps, a retired three-star general. “Sharing that information with us is critical.”
That communication also has to keep going. Currently, it tends to shut down at crucial stages because the Army fears legal repercussions if one competitor seems to be getting more information than another. So the easiest way to be fair is to stop talking to everyone. It’s this same fear, incidentally, that led Army lawyers to exclude all industry participants from the Army Innovation Summit’s recommendation-writing sessions.
“In some programs, pre-CDD, there’s a lot of exchange of information and ideas,” said BAE’s Signorelli. “The problem is that at the point when the door closes, it’s closed until the RFP comes out.”
At the same time, ironically, companies complain of information overload because there are too many uncoordinated Defense Department initiatives urging “innovation.” Secretary Ash Carter created both the Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental) and the Strategic Capabilities Office, on top of the existing Pentagon office for Emerging Capabilities & Prototyping. The Army is following the Air Force and Navy in creating a Rapid Capabilities Office. Army TRADOC has its “mad scientist” conferences. There are other funding sources such as DARPA, the Rapid Innovation Fund (RIF), the Rapid Equipping Force (REF), and the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.
“You’ve got to have a central point… where the Army is putting their issues and their problems” for industry to read, said Nunn.
While industry and academia weren’t allowed inside the working groups, the Army officers and civilians writing up the recommendations tried to include their ideas, Maj. Gen. Dyess said.
Communication is so poor that “industry and academia do not know what the government wants,” said Dyess. While there are many voices speaking for the military, they’re not consistent or coordinated, he said: “There’s no synchronization across different forums.”
The No. 1 recommendation for immediate action out of Dyess’s group: reinstate the annual Army science conference that was shut down after 2013’s budget sequester and conference scandals involving the GSA and VA. That will reopen a crucial venue for communication.
On a larger scale, said Dyess, the Army needs to catalog and publish for all to see all its upcoming industry days. TRADOC should compile the list of industry days held by all its requirements developers, while the Assistant Army Secretary for Acquisition, Logistics & Technology should do so for events hosted by program managers and program executive officers. Army University should index and summarize Army-sponsored research publications. Technology roadmaps and requirements should also go in a central library, added Maj. Gen. Kirk Vollmecke.
Gathering all this information takes time and money. So will restoring specialist positions that assisted requirements developers by analyzing missions and threats, as will reviving personnel exchanges between different parts of the Army. But it’s necessary, Dyess said.
It’s a big agenda. But it’s a significant step forward just to hold the summit, bringing together as it does industry, Army Materiel Command, and Training & Doctrine Command. “The Army is extraordinarily busy supporting every combatant command, so you can become consumed just in day-to-day business that you have,” General Via told me. “The ability to pause and just have a conversation is the first step.”