I have an entirely new appreciation for the U.S. Army. On a recent project, service officials broke the government’s often too-slow acquisition model, and instead worked together with us, the contractor, to define its needs, develop the right hardware and software, and then support the Army’s internal development and integration. This experience represents a significant change in the Army’s typical way of doing business, and it taught us both a few lessons.
The project, the multi-function video display (MVD) program, requires complex rugged display and server/video systems mounted inside ground vehicles for mine clearing on mine-resistant, ambush protected (MRAP) type II platforms. The rub came when the Army told all the suppliers bidding for the job that the system had to come in under $50,000, which had to include an extremely high-performance server, three smart displays, video processing encoders and an enterprise-quality, in-vehicle network. Despite wanting leading-edge, commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) technology to throw at the problem, there was little to no wiggle room within the budget due to a few factors, including the current vehicle configurations. Essentially, if it couldn’t be done within that budget, they weren’t going to do it.
It quickly became clear that using multiple vendors for different system components made it impossible to hit the budget target. Routine markups, overhead and basic logistics meant the only way this could become reality was to have only one vendor supply all the necessary components and advise the Army on the system integration. Starting with a functional off-the-shelf system and with the help of some long-lead dollars to fund the COTS modifications and an improved in-vehicle architecture, everything came together within the stated budget.
From that point, the Army took our design and put it out for bid. Ultimately, we won the project despite the fact that GMS was not at that time an official prime contractor. Had we gone through one of the existing primes—and we tried—there was no getting around $25,000 to $30,000 of additional fees per system, which would have killed the project. And warfighters would have been denied improved, and desperately needed, mine-clearing capabilities.
At this point, the Army was already applying a new and creative way of thinking: find the best system and the best vendor and flexibly structure the program to successfully achieve technical and financial goals. Once started, the project took an unexpected turn when the Army revealed its team would write the necessary software and install the equipment themselves. This revelation was unique in my experience.
We were concerned about this, because we’d likely be responsible for fixing any resulting issues. But as part of its MVD initiative, the Army needed to port its software to the defined hardware in a multidisplay environment, collect all the data, encode it, transmit it to MRAP crew stations and store it locally. As it turned out, they did a great job writing and documenting the code to handle these functions. The way I understand it, the Army’s software is fully owned by the government and fully under the government’s control, but it’s flexible enough to be applied to other platforms such as Stryker, Bradley or future M113 upgrades and replacements.
To all that, I say Bravo!
In the end, they partnered—in the true sense of the word—with the contractor, to create and evolve the hardware that was eventually deployed. There are multiple benefits to this approach. It saves the Army significant engineering and integration dollars. It allows the soldiers and service personnel to become familiar with installation, networks, servers, video and software, and it lets them develop additional skills that will be valuable for them after they leave the service.
In summary, the Army in this instance acted like a business. Service officials put the job out to bid, shopped it around and even handled part of the job internally. Ultimately, they got what they wanted at the price they needed. Here’s to hoping that this process will continue. It’s good for the Army; it’s good for the soldiers and service personnel; and it’s good for the country.
Ben Sharfi’s latest guest post is live at Signal magazine. Read the full post there learn about the significant change in the Army’s typical way of doing business.
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