What if multiple brigades of deploying Soldiers suddenly needed combat uniforms? Meeting challenges such as this one, strategically and creatively, before a conflict arises is the true test of readiness for Army acquisition.
by Robert F. Mortlock, Ph.D., Col., USA (Ret.)
In late 2004, at a town hall with Soldiers deployed to Southwest Asia, then Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld responded to Soldiers’ questions about the availability of vehicle armor by saying that they had to go to war with the Army they had, not the one they wanted. The backlash from Soldiers, Congress and the American public was intense—they questioned the Army’s commitment to readiness and its budget priorities. As a result, the Army changed priorities and increased its investment in force protection by supplying critical combat equipment, including flame-resistant (FR) uniforms, to Soldiers deploying overseas to combat zones.
Fast forward to 2017, and the 39th chief of staff of the Army (CSA), Gen. Mark A. Milley, has made readiness the Army’s top priority. How does this affect the business of acquisition? How do Army acquisition leaders meet the CSA’s intent? Achieving readiness will require a hard look at acquisition timelines and methods. Simply put, it takes a changing mindset that prioritizes readiness in acquisition decisions. As of 2017, for example, the stockpile inventory of FR combat uniforms satisfies the demand for deploying Soldiers but is insufficient to support a surge deployment of Soldiers for a large-scale conflict, were one to arise in the Middle East, Asia or Europe.
Army acquisition leaders need to fight through the Army’s bureaucracy, including its risk-averse and change-resistant culture, to meet the CSA’s intent. Having an adequate stockpile of flame-resistant combat uniforms to support deploying Soldiers for a major regional conflict directly supports the CSA’s goal of improved readiness and is just one area that requires innovative acquisition approaches.
The traditional approach is to develop evolutionary acquisition strategies based on incremental development—that is, deliver a limited capability to the warfighter early on, then the full required capability later. In the case of a flame-resistant combat uniform shortage, this approach is not applicable because the procurement, production, storage and fielding of FR uniforms for a large-scale deployment on the order of tens of brigade combat teams (BCTs) is not a development program.
Alternative acquisition approaches can leverage lessons learned to solve the shortfall by applying existing processes in innovative ways. To ensure readiness with sufficient quantities of flame-resistant combat uniforms for deploying Soldiers, it is essential that the Army make a long-term commitment by maintaining a production capability and capacity that can meet surge requirements.
Fortunately for the Army, the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) currently provides all deploying Soldiers with the necessary combat uniforms and equipment to operate successfully on the battlefield. However, the RFI program is funded from the overseas contingency operations (OCO) account, whose annual budget is based on the predicted number of deploying Soldiers. Basically, the program procures sufficient flame-resistant uniforms at the beginning of the fiscal year to support that year’s deploying Soldiers. However, the number of deploying Soldiers has dropped from a peak of around 190,000 Soldiers in FY08, at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), to current levels of about 15,000 Soldiers. Therefore, the RFI is procuring fewer flame-resistant combat uniforms each year.
As an example, based on a deployment of 15 BCTs, the Army would need about 12 months to build the inventory of flame-resistant uniforms and field them for all deployed Soldiers. This projection is based on the current industrial base, which is severely limited by the requirement to buy U.S. products in compliance with the Berry Amendment; on the existing contracts; and on the demonstrated capabilities from the introduction of the Army Combat Uniform (ACU) with the Universal Camouflage Pattern in 2005 for OIF and the introduction of the Flame Resistant Army Combat Uniform (FRACU) in the OEF Camouflage Pattern in 2011. Soldiers would deploy with the current issued uniforms, which are not flame-resistant, and get the flame-resistant versions to meet this surge requirement after the industrial base ramps up production and the Army builds up its inventory.
This is an unacceptable solution that runs counter to the CSA’s readiness priority. After introducing the ACU in 2005, the Army recognized the importance of protecting Soldiers from battlefield hazards and included specific uniform requirements for protection against insects (resulting in permethrin treatment) and fire or flame (resulting in flame-resistant fabrics). The ACU fabric is a 50-50 mix of cotton and nylon. The FRACU is made of 65 percent rayon, 25 percent para-aramid and 10 percent nylon. The Flame Resistant Environment Ensemble (FREE) is the flame-resistant version of the normally issued seven-layer Generation III Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS).
When Soldiers deploy to combat today, they are issued both the FRACU and the FREE through Rapid Fielding Initiative operations. Soldiers do not normally deploy with the clothing bag-issued ACU and ECWCS—those are for daily wear in garrison operations and in training.
With close to a decade’s worth of evidence on the benefits of flame-resistant combat uniforms, namely reduced combat injuries from burns, it would be unacceptable for Soldiers to deploy to future combat operations in non-flame-resistant uniforms. That would take the Army to a lower state of readiness and force protection. However, that is exactly what could happen this year if the Army does nothing to anticipate the surge requirement for flame-resistant uniforms for Soldiers deploying in support of a major conflict.
ACTION NOW = READINESS LATER
Are there better acquisition approaches for the Army to consider? Yes, and now is the time to act—before there is an actual need for hundreds of thousands of deploying Soldiers. Current RFI operations efficiently support deploying Soldiers with flame-resistant uniforms. At the same time, current central issue facilities and military clothing and sales stores across Army installations support Soldiers with non-flame-resistant uniforms. This period of sustained excellence is the time to plan and prepare the industrial base to support a surge requirement for flame-resistant uniforms.
Each of the options below has advantages and disadvantages, but with overall benefits far exceeding the costs of the unacceptable status quo. The Army must be able to buy time for the industrial base to ramp up production and meet surge requirements for flame-resistant uniforms.
Option 1—Leverage the efficiency and excellence of current Rapid Fielding Initiative operations. Over the last decade, RFI has successfully fielded millions of items to deploying Soldiers. The current operation can simultaneously support the fielding of flame-resistant uniforms and combat gear for up to three brigade combat teams per month. The RFI could seamlessly absorb a mission supporting 15 BCTs’ worth of uniforms by simply adding that much buffer-stock inventory of flame-resistant uniforms to the central warehouse in Lansing, Michigan. The storage, distribution, transportation and fielding operations for these uniforms would operate similarly to current RFI operations.
The barrier to implementation is not affordability but a change-resistant Army culture. Current RFI operations are 100 percent OCO-funded, and this option would require the Army to acknowledge the long-term benefit of RFI operations and make the RFI an enduring requirement with a commitment to fund at least part of the program’s operations from the base budget—essentially institutionalizing that portion of the RFI. As a possible model, the Army successfully institutionalized the Rapid Equipping Force (REF) by approving it as an enduring need and including the REF in its base budget request
Option 2—Consider this surge requirement for flame-resistant uniforms as a concept similar to Army Prepositioned Stocks (APS), whereby the Army would approve the requirement to store sets of flame-resistant uniforms as contingency stocks. The APS is a multifunctional set of equipment for a BCT or more, stored at a forward location in preparation for conflict in that region. Similar to APS operations, in times of need, the flame-resistant uniforms would be taken out of storage and fielded to deploying BCTs. The Army already has implemented this concept successfully, albeit on a smaller scale, for units of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, that are supporting the Global Reaction Force. The Marine Corps implements a similar storage concept for flame-resistant uniforms to support deploying Marines.
The U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellence, Army Capabilities Integration Center and the Program Executive Office for Soldier proposed a similar concept called deployer equipment bundles (DEBs). A validated cost-benefit analysis performed on the concept in 2014 concluded that the benefits of having flame-resistant uniforms stored for future contingencies outweighed the costs. Basically, it is less expensive for the Army to store and eventually field the uniforms than it is to field flame-resistant uniforms and then sustain them for Soldiers.
Again, the barrier to acceptance and implementation is an Army culture that’s reluctant to consider change, as well as the lack of a system to properly prioritize funding across program evaluation groups (PEGs), which are responsible for DA program and budget funding. A DEB-like concept for flame-resistant uniforms would call for a base budget requirement, but the Army can’t work through its own bureaucracy to determine if the equipping, sustaining, training or manning program evaluation groups should cover the bill. Essentially, no single PEG will champion the concept because they fear they will be forced to pay the entire bill. Additionally, the Army is reluctant to fund the procurement and storage of flame-resistant uniforms with base budget funding without a requirements document approved by the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS)—a fundamentally ridiculous situation, given that the Army has been buying and fielding flame-resistant uniforms to Soldiers for a decade with OCO funding and no need for JCIDS approval.
To get a capability production document validated and approved just for the sake of securing funding would take years. This cumbersome approach is an example of the fundamental disconnects between the JCIDS, the acquisition system and the planning, programming, budgeting and execution processes—the same disconnects that are the root cause of most acquisition program failures.
Option 3—Supported by both Congress and industry, this option calls for the Army to consider changing the Soldier’s initial issue and subsequent clothing bag authorization from non-flame-resistant uniforms to flame-resistant uniforms. At a minimum, the Army could consider authorizing and issuing a mix of non-flame-resistant and flame-resistant uniforms for all Soldiers. This option would allow Soldiers to train in flame-resistant uniforms, giving them the same force protection benefits during garrison operations and training exercises that they get in combat. The uniforms then would be available for deployments, immediately and visibly increasing readiness. The primary barrier to implementation of this option is affordability. The current cost of a set of ACU blouse and trousers runs about $90, while flame-resistant uniforms are significantly more expensive. The ECWCS costs $800, the set of FRACUs runs about $175 and the FREE about $2,300. Therefore, this option would increase the costs for initial issue and the clothing replacement allowance for Soldiers. Additionally, these bills would be absorbed by the manning and sustaining PEGs from already overextended personnel as well as operating and support accounts.
The bottom line is that the Army cannot afford to take Soldier readiness for granted. Issuing Soldiers flame-resistant uniforms or having a stockpile of flame-resistant uniforms available would increase readiness and force protection.
Any of the acquisition strategies presented above would allow the Army to provide first-deploying Soldiers with flame-resistant uniforms and give the industrial base time to ramp up production for follow-on deploying Soldiers. There’s enough money in the Army’s total obligation authority and budget to support any of these options—it’s just a matter of understanding the CSA’s intent and getting through the bureaucratic barriers to implement innovative acquisition approaches.
The risk of deploying Soldiers to combat without flame-resistant uniforms is too great to allow concerns of affordability and resistance by the bureaucracy to outweigh the benefits to Soldier readiness. Having a useful, innovative readiness plan for the flame-resistant uniforms goes beyond this particular case. It is also an example of how acquisition leaders can attain a much-needed readiness mindset that looks around, through and over the bureaucratically inclined culture of risk aversion with a determination to keep Soldiers properly equipped above all other considerations—providing an uncommon but vitally important unity of enduring acquisition values, day-to-day practice and current Army priorities.
ROBERT F. MORTLOCK, PH.D., COL., USA (Ret.), managed defense systems development and acquisition efforts for the last 15 of his 27 years in the U.S. Army, culminating in his assignment as the project manager for Soldier protection and individual equipment in Program Executive Office for Soldier. He retired in September 2015 and is now a lecturer for defense acquisition and program management at the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He holds a Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, an MBA from Webster University, an M.S. in national resource strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces and a B.S. in chemical engineering from Lehigh University. He is also a recent graduate from the Post-Doctoral Bridge Program of the University of Florida’s Hough Graduate School of Business, with a management specialization.
This article will be published in the October – December 2017 Army AL&T magazine.
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