Strategy Page has a post up about the Rapid Fielding Initiative, a streamlined way of getting certain types of equipment into the hands of troops, outside the normal procurement channels.
When wars end there is a search for lessons. One of the most important lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan is that the same lessons tend to be relearned in war after war. The recent wars were different because there was some awareness of this repetition (learning lessons, forgetting them, learning them again during the next war). Perhaps the most important lesson learned this time around was that a lot (usually most) wisdom and innovations begins at the bottom, not at the top. In past wars leaders often believed they knew how to deal with the smallest details of combat operations and ordered disastrous policies to be implemented. There was a lot less of that this time around.
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 (Rapid Fielding Initiative). Established in 2002, RFI 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. During the next nine years the army approved the purchase of 409 items immediately, which is what RFI was all about. Last year 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.
During a lot of my time in the Army, from the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, the Army swung from robust budgets, to fairly lean times (though rarely could the term austere be genuinely used). But there’s never enough money, especially in peacetime, to buy everything you want. So the Army tended to prioritize procurement funding toward big ticket, long lead time items, be it vehicles, communications, or missiles. Little stuff, such as the personal equipment soldiers actually wear or use, tended to fall to the back of the line. An example- in an era when virtually every person who camps or hikes can get a very nice, completely waterproof/windproof one-man tent from REI for around $100, the Army was still issuing the cotton duck shelter half pup-tent first fielded around 1912.
A good example of a piece of kit that quickly found its way to the troops is the Camelback hydration system. It’s easier and quieter to carry a larger volume of water with a Camelback than with traditional Army canteens. And so, virtually every troop now uses one. Troops started buying them with their own money. But the Army quickly found a way to find funding to buy them for issue to the troops.
Still, rapid fielding of low cost items like personal gear isn’t without its risks. For instance, Let’s say a notional company makes a neat little widget that fills a niche for the troops. But they tend to only make 5000 a years. Suddenly faced with an order for 50,000, they’re going to struggle to meet demand, and, almost certainly, there will be quality control issues in trying to ramp up production. Existing supply line items already in the Army’s inventory tend to have established supply chains, and even surges in production tend to cause less disruption than for Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) items.
And while sometimes, new, better equipment for more advanced uses, say, communications, is available from vendors, just buying it doesn’t mean there are no problems.
In Craig’s series on the Past, Present and Future of Tactical Radios, he discussed the challenges of training soldiers to adapt to the SINCGARS family of tactical radios. Mind you, this was a system that was procured through normal channels. Doctrinal Field Manuals, and Technical Manuals were written, reviewed and published. New Equipment Training Teams (NETT) went to each unit as it fielded the SINCGARS and gave intense instruction in the use and maintenance of the radios. And yet, the complexity of the full range of features meant that the learning curve was still very steep, leaving many units to forego using the secure modes built in, and operating in unsecure, single channel mode- thus obviating the whole point of fielding SINCGARS in the first place.
Come the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even the SINCGARS family had shortcomings that desperately needed to be addressed. As Craig mentioned, the PRC-150/152 family of radios was available off the shelf to address those shortcomings, primarily in data transmission, and in integrating with GPS, but also to provide SATCOM and other waveform capabilities down to low level tactical units via a single radio system. The Army quickly bought tens of thousands of these radios.
But while the radios themselves provided enhanced capability, that didn’t mean there were not some disadvantages to buying them this way.
Buying off the shelf means the Army hasn’t developed the doctrinal or technical training to teach soldiers how best to use or maintain the radios, nor to establish networks. Some doctrine would translate over from previous manuals, but each unit would tend to develop its own interpretation, and often such interpretations don’t translate from unit to unit. Thus, the point of expanding capabilities instead can turn to friction between disparate units trying to establish comms with one another. Because the radios haven’t been bought through the conventional procurement system, spare parts and organizational and higher level maintenance procedures and training aren’t in place. In effect, buying a new system off the shelf to address a shortcoming can actually produce as many new problems as it solves.
Mind you, one reason this RFI for COTS equipment takes place is that the conventional procurement system is so sclerotic that even relatively simple systems such as backpack radios can take 10-15 years to wend their way through the procurement maze, much of that time spent even before hardware is first assembled. By the time a viable piece of hardware has been developed, technology has moved on so far that the fielded piece is already obsolescent, prompting the end user to instead lobby to buy COTS.