The Next Generation Load Device – Small program used an innovative, tailored acquisition approach to rapidly deliver capability to Soldiers of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.
by Wayne Rush and Robin Schumacher
Those familiar with the Army acquisition world know firsthand the challenges and complexities in quickly fulfilling Soldier needs. It is an uphill battle that has been put in the spotlight in recent years with the Army Tactical Network Modernization Strategy and the establishment of organizations like the U.S. Army Futures Command. Developing compatible systems and products that use modern technology and can easily and rapidly integrate into the tactical field network is as important as the speed at which we can deliver capability to the field.
Therefore, when the U.S. Army Special Operations Command (SOCOM) identified a requirement for a modern, small, lightweight and easy-to-operate device to load encryption keys onto equipment—a key fill device—the Product Lead for Communications Security (COMSEC), part of the Project Lead for Network Enablers, used innovative acquisition methods and collaborative partnerships to fulfill the requirement in record time with a solution that will provide interoperability across services and with coalition systems.
So, how did we do it? Essentially, we attacked the four longest “tent poles” of the Army acquisition process—funding, requirements, contracting and testing. These components are critical, but traditionally involve lengthy processes. To save time and money, we used allocated program resources for staffing and procurement and achieved an Acquisition Category (ACAT) IV program of record with full-rate production in less than six months.
In 2013, a capability production document was developed for the Next Generation Load Device (NGLD) – Small in support of urgent special operations missions. This required a simple, small and light device that could be used in the field to load encryption keys onto equipment. Loading encryption keys onto equipment is how the Army ensures that the communication being transmitted through the equipment is secure—a critical need for us to remain vigilant against our adversaries.
Two products were identified by HQDA G-3/5/7 as potential materiel solutions; however, those devices did not meet all of the requirements specified in the capability production document. One major feature that was missing was the ability to use the new Key Management Infrastructure (KMI)—a National Security Agency (NSA)-developed program that provides a modern, reliable and secure system to handle the generation and use of encryption keys. KMI allows Soldiers to obtain encryption keys over the internet, which limits the requirement for physical products and manual delivery to maintain secure communications.
As an interim solution, Army Special Operations Command used the Really Simple Key Loader, a handheld device for securely receiving, storing and transferring data between equipment, provided by the Project Lead for Network Enablers. However, a replacement capability with more modern technology was still urgently needed.
Fast forward to today. The Army completed the transition to KMI in late fiscal year 2018, which means the technology now exists to validate the requirement in the capability production document for an NSA-certified device that can use KMI. With the technology available, Product Lead COMSEC began looking at government off-the-shelf equipment and researching what the other services were using to meet the need for the Army.
This approach makes achieving interoperability with other systems easier, and it eliminates the legwork and reduces the time and resources needed to develop and test new technology.
JOINT EFFORT FOR RAPID RESULTS
In early FY19, Product Lead COMSEC researched devices that could fit the requirement for the NGLD-Small, particularly devices that were already fielded to other services. Ultimately, we selected the Tactical Key Loader as the materiel solution for the NGLD-Small. The small, NSA-certified, modern key fill device had been fielded to the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps since 2013. Even better, the Tactical Key Loader was already available through an Air Force production contract awarded by the Air Education and Training Command in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2018, further shortening the acquisition timeline.
The acquisition process was a united team effort. Product Lead COMSEC, part of the Program Executive Office for Command, Control and Communications – Tactical (PEO C3T), was able to combine multiple documents into a simplified acquisition management plan, leveraging existing documentation, and working with stakeholders at PEO C3T, the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command and the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command capability manager to quickly solidify program milestones and criteria and then formulate documentation, conduct peer reviews and adjudicate comments in preparation for PEO approvals.
Using the simplified acquisition management plan and the existing production contract between the Air Force and Harris Corp. to procure the NGLD-Small (Tactical Key Loader), we were able to significantly accelerate the program.
TEST TO FIELD
Another long pole in acquisition is the testing that is required for capabilities to be fielded. Typically, this can take 12 to 18 months just to schedule. However, the Tactical Key Loader was NSA-certified Type 1 non-developmental cryptographic materiel, which does not require full operational testing. As a result, the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command agreed that a command, control, computers, communications, cyber, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C5ISR) evaluation report could be used in lieu of an operational milestone assessment report from Test and Evaluation Command.
Collaborative partnerships, mentioned earlier, were just as valuable in this acquisition approach as innovation. Most importantly, all parties had to concur on the approach itself—developing the simplified acquisition management plan and performing the testing outside of traditional means. From the start, we shared a vision to get modern technology into Army special operations units in a few short months. Once everyone caught the vision, we were able to streamline the acquisition process to work on behalf of the Soldier.
Product Lead COMSEC took advantage of our relationship with the C5ISR Center Cryptographic Modernization Branch at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland, to perform the evaluation on the Tactical Key Loader. Program officials included the C5ISR Center at the front of the acquisition plan, allowing better understanding of the uniqueness of this effort and the evolution of the requirements that we needed to test against. One of the added benefits of conducting the evaluation in-house and having existing relationships between the C5ISR Center and industry was that we were able to easily and quickly modify the devices to be safe, suitable and effective upgrades for what was being used in the field.
While the long poles are often the most important, they can also take the longest time to put up, and can prevent a program from moving forward. However, the Product Lead COMSEC team’s diligence in working the long poles led them to success. On July 31, 2019, PEO C3T approved the materiel development decision for the NGLD-Small, designated the program as an ACAT IV and authorized full-rate production. According to an internal PEO C3T report from August 2019, Product Lead COMSEC has procured 5,000 NGLD-Smalls, and in September the first batch of 200 was delivered to the Tobyhanna Army Depot in Pennsylvania. The acquisition strategy for the NGLD-Small program executed by the Product Lead COMSEC team could be used as an example for future programs looking to expedite the process. As the Army looks to modernize, delivering more rapid, innovative and tailored approaches for getting capabilities into the hands of Soldiers is essential.
For more information, go to the Project Lead Network Enablers website at https://peoc3t.army.mil/nete/.
WAYNE RUSH is the assistant program manager for Product Lead COMSEC. He holds an M.S. in systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University, and an M.A. in military history and a B.S. in economics from Norwich University. He is Level III certified in life cycle logistics and Level II certified in program management. He is a member of the Army Acquisition Corps.
ROBIN SCHUMACHER is a lead associate with Booz Allen Hamilton providing strategic communications support to Project Lead Network Enablers. She holds a B.A. in English from York College of Pennsylvania.
This article is published in the Winter 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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