Procurement: There's No Business Like Slow Business

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November 12, 2009: While the U.S. military, especially the army, has gotten lots of publicity for their new found ability to get new, and much needed, equipment more quickly, this change has been rather superficial. Only a few percent of the procurement budget has gone to this sort of high-speed-procurement thing. Despite the fact that the procurement bureaucrats noted the demand, they responded with as little fundamental change as possible. The procurement officials are cautious to a fault, which is why it takes over a decade to develop and produce new equipment.

But over the last decade, the U.S. Army's slow moving procurement system has gotten an unwanted kick in the ass by the Special Forces and the Internet. Tangible change came seven years ago in the form of RFI (Rapid Fielding Initiative). The 2001 Afghanistan campaign provided the opportunity for the establishment, in early 2002, to implement some needed changes. RFI is an army program that recognized that American army troops did not always have the best weapons and equipment, and had to wait a long time to get them even after the brass realized there was a need. RFI was intended to do something about that, and do it quickly. RFI gives the units (brigades, divisions) money to buy what they think they need, and as quickly as possible.

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 stuff came from hunting suppliers (new gun sights). There was a flood of new electronic gear, like lighter and more reliable GPS receivers and computer gear.

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 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 came along, each soldiers discovery spread slowly. Now, information about new discoveries gets spread army wide within hours. The troops also compared notes about combat experiences, and this led to detailed and compelling critiques about what worked, and didn't work, with current army gear.

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

When American troops went into Afghanistan in early 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 were 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. Especially if the new equipment, from a civilian supplier, was obviously superior to the stuff the government was giving the troops. With this kind of incentive, the Rapid Fielding Initiative was quickly set up and became a big success. 

The Iraq campaign gave the RFI another workout. A typical incident involved all the raids troops had to make and the problems with getting through sturdy locked doors. Some troops knew of special equipment police departments used, others knew of special equipment fire fighters used to break into burning buildings. The proper equipment was soon in the troops hands, and many lives, both American and Iraqi, were saved. Stories came back from Afghanistan and Iraq about how great the RFI gear was and all was well with the troops and the brass in the Pentagon.

The army's procurement system is not much different than just about every other military organization. It is deliberate, it emphasizes avoiding mistakes, especially any that would make the bureaucrats look bad. The procurement community pays more attention to the desires of politicians and senior Pentagon officials, than to the troops who ultimately have to use the gear.

RFI, and the constant troop buzz on the Internet, has also terrified the procurement bureaucrats. That buzz gets heard by politicians and journalists. Now the troops have to be paid attention to. Big change, and it has speeded up the development of official gear (which is often just RFI stuff bought in bulk and painted green.) But when you stand back and look at the overall procurement effort (more than $100 billion a year), you see that over 90 percent is still devoted to doing things the old fashioned way. The RFI approach is a start, but it's having a hard time growing beyond relatively inexpensive weapons and gadgets that the troops know work. There have been some exceptions, like MRAP, but the old-line procurement bureaucrats are hanging on to most of their money, and spending it the old fashioned way.

 


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