It's no secret in Washington defense circles that the acquisition process is frustrating at best. Several efforts within the past few years have been underway to get tools in the hands of war fighters more quickly, especially in the IT and technology space.
The problem is that within current paradigms, oftentimes technologies become obsolete within two to five years, which is just a fraction of the process it takes to acquire systems. The traditional military model has been to buy a lot of equipment and field it for a long time.
In Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army worked feverishly to purchased communications gear and other technology to get it to soldiers in the field that desperately needed it. Following the height of operations, the Army had to make a choice: throw away all this equipment or keep and sustain it.
With emerging advanced threats — such as Russia and China, which possess highly technical skills in cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum — much of the communications gear the Army has fielded remains vulnerable to hacking and simultaneously is rapidly growing obsolete.
The way to look at this might be to think of it as how fast is the technology evolving, Heidi Shyu, former assistant secretary for acquisition, logistics and technology for the Army, told C4ISRNET in a recent interview. For something like missile defense, she said, it’s so complex that it takes a long time before upgrading to the next iteration while robotics and technology evolves so quickly given the advancements in the commercial world.
Shyu equated it to cellphones, noting people tend to buy a new one every few years when the technology advances. "A five- or 10-year-old robot is a dinosaur. Same with your cellphone," she said.
The advancements in technology are already reshaping the way the military thinks about how it buys systems with the Army’s tactical network serving as a great case study.
How do you solve a problem like WIN-T?
The Army’s Warfighter Information Network-Tactical, or WIN-T, has been marred by setbacks and cost overruns that have drawn sharp criticism from Congress.
"Most recently the committee has learned of the failure of the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical or WIN-T program … this program has cost the taxpayer over $6 billion and has yet to meet the requirements of warfighters," Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) lamented at a recent hearing, describing WIN-T as a "debacle."
Moreover, the system is believed to have critical vulnerabilities if injected into a full spectrum conflict against a near peer adversary.
"I have seen credible reports that WIN-T has ineffective line-of-sight communications, is not survivable, is too fragile to survive in a contested environment and has an electromagnetic signature so loud that it practically would call for enemy artillery on the top of users’ heads," Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., said at the same hearing, to which Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said he’s heard the same reports.
Milley told Congress that his concern "is these systems may or may or may not work in the conditions of combat that I envision in the future with this change of character of warfare," meaning they will have trouble operating in contested environments and complex terrain calling WIN-T fragile and vulnerable.
Part of the issue was WIN-T was fielded to fight a particular fight.
"The issue is threats evolve. The war and the battles that you’re fighting today is not necessarily the same that you’re going to fight tomorrow," Shyu said. "If the system is designed for a more permissive environment like Afghanistan, it is very different that if you’re going to fight in Iraq or Syria where more advanced weapons might be there, or Ukraine."
Ultimately, WIN-T was developed in a so-called permissive environment without significant vulnerabilities taken into consideration.
"The problem with WIN-T, at least the increments that we’ve been dealing with, it was supposed to be all things to all people and it can’t be," said James MacStravic, who is performing the duties of Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics.
Milley cautioned that it’s not just WIN-T, but WIN-T is a subset of a larger network of systems for which he has concerns about interoperability, line of sight, ability to operating in complex terrain, its vulnerability and its ability to operate on the move.
Smarter buying and building requirements
The acquisition model employed by Special Operations Command, and lauded by many, purchases a limited amount of systems or technology for a certain purpose to be thrown away and not fielded in a larger capacity.
Shyu noted this is something the larger Army is grappling with. While now the philosophy is buy a million of the same thing, a million of the same thing will be obsolete, she said.
"There ought to be different flavors of acquisition," she continued. "You could say for things that technology becomes obsolete very quickly, do I need to buy everything to be identical for a million soldiers? Or is it OK for soldiers deploying to give them the latest stuff? Because in two years, whatever they had is going to be a dinosaur. I’ll give the next brigade going overseas the latest equipment. This is how you can get the latest technology in the hands of the soldier and not become obsolete."
This notion was seconded by MacStravic. "Intelligently, the Army has been breaking their tactical radio purchases into smaller and smaller chunks, which means that they can be more responsive to the immediate needs of the warfighter by focusing on what the next unit deploying really needs to do their job rather than what we’re going to need in five or 10 years."
He added: "If you’re buying a thousand radios, guess what, welcome to [Acquisition Category] I program. Well, don’t buy a thousand radios."
Milley told Congress that the Army is undergoing a rigorous process to evaluateits communications and technology equipment.
Milley noted that the Army has "reenergized" the the
Army Requirements Oversight Council
system, "which had gone foul for a while and that is meeting weekly and determines the requirements of the systems," which inform the procurement. While difficult to predict the future of war as a means of injecting projections into requirements, the leveraging of commercial off the shelf technologies and open architectures will be critical.
MacStravic acknowledged that the Army is going to have to accept what’s commercially available and understand how to employ it, while Shyu called this a more agile design with technology evolving more quickly than a large weapon system such as missile defense.
"What we’ve done is, with the authorities the chairman and the committee and the Congress gave us a couple of years ago, is I and the vice chief of staff of the Army along with a small group of people are driving a rigorous and through and painful review of the entire communication, electromagnetic capabilities of the U.S. Army, which WIN-T is one part of," he added.
Additionally, Milley acknowledged the entire acquisition approach especially in information technologies needs to be reviewed.
By the time the Army comes up with requirements to do prototyping and tests, these systems are already out of date, he said. There is a fundamental issue in the IT world, it’s not just WIN-T, he added, it’s much broader than that, which causes him to be skeptical from an acquisition and procurement standpoint.
Correction: An earlier version of this story mentioned WIN-T's increment two, incorrectly stating that it was only fielded to test units.
Mark Pomerleau is a reporter for C4ISRNET, covering information warfare and cyberspace.