Competition Meets Collaboration

By September 20, 2016September 3rd, 2018Army ALT Magazine, Science and Technology
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Vendors share prototypes for weapon sights in a new mix-and-match approach to building interoperability into integrated Soldier systems for the best overall performance at the best overall price.

by Maj. Nicholas Breen

On a warm, dusty afternoon at White Sands Missile Range (WSMR), New Mexico, in May 2016, engineers from two competing vendors for the Family of Weapons Sights – Individual (FWS-I) program took the unusual step of swapping their prototypes and discussing the technical merits of each other’s approach to the program. This level of collaboration between competing vendors is highly unorthodox in the fiercely competitive world of defense procurement, yet it was the approach taken by BAE Systems of Nashua, New Hampshire, and DRS Technologies of Dallas. According to Lt. Col. (P) Timothy Fuller, then the product manager for Soldier maneuver sensors (PM SMS), “Interoperability ensures that any combination of vendor systems can be procured and fielded to the Soldier.”

The FWS-I will be the smallest, lightest and most capable thermal weapon sight in the Army inventory. Beyond its significant improvement over the legacy thermal weapon sight (TWS) program in size, weight and power, what is truly unprecedented is that this targeting device can pair wirelessly with the Soldier’s thermal-capable maneuver sensor in the form of the Enhanced Night Vision Goggle III (ENVG III). Wirelessly linking an individual Soldier’s maneuver sensor and targeting sensor finally provides the light infantry fighter a battlefield capability that our mechanized and armored forces have enjoyed for years.

The wireless connection provides improved situational awareness and increases the Soldier’s lethality and survivability by enabling them to aim and shoot at an enemy without having to transition from maneuver optics (ENVG) to target acquisition optics (FWS-I). The system software and wireless communication allow Soldiers to scan the environment and accurately engage the enemy without shouldering the weapon or using a laser pointing device (which can compromise the Soldier’s position) during the critical moments in an engagement when shots are first fired. The passive targeting capability, known as rapid target acquisition (RTA), functions when the ENVG III and FWS-I are wirelessly paired with one another but not when these systems are used alone.

“We have found, sometimes the hard way, that it is far better to work out interoperability and system integration problems early in the acquisitions process. That is the path we are taking,” said Timothy Goddette, deputy program executive officer in the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Soldier.

Goddette’s comment echoes a prominent subtheme of acquisition reform. Both the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, in different ways, call for greater interoperability in a variety of contexts within and between the services. The two chambers are now reconciling the differences between their two versions of the bill to arrive at compromise legislation.


By pairing ENVG III and FWS-I, Soldiers no longer need to switch between night vision goggles and weapon-mounted thermal sights when acquiring or engaging threats, improving soldier safety and mission effectiveness. The vendor collaboration that made that interoperability possible required a lot of legwork on the part of PM SMS to develop a way forward that benefited both vendors as well as warfighters. (Image courtesy of PEO Soldier)

Development of this new RTA technology and increased capability required management of the programmatic risks and potential complications that often arise as technologies are integrated into something new. Thermal sensors, which were first fielded to infantry Soldiers in 1998 with the AN/PAS-13, have significant tactical advantages compared with standard light-intensification night vision technology, as they sense heat generated by personnel and equipment and can detect targets through smoke, dust, fog and other obscurants. Night vision technology has been in the Army inventory even longer than the AN/PAS-13, going back to the first passive starlight scopes fielded in the 1960s. The first ENVG, which fused thermal and light intensification technology, was introduced in 2007.

The FWS-I now uses a wireless link to combine these technologies and make them even more lethal with the addition of RTA.

To reduce programmatic risk, PM SMS decided to bring two vendors on to the program not only for the engineering and manufacturing development (EMD) effort but throughout the life of the program. PM SMS, which is assigned to PEO Soldier’s project manager for Soldier sensors and lasers (PM SSL), has used this approach in past programs during the production phase to introduce price competition and to ensure sustained system deliveries should one vendor experience problems manufacturing these highly technical, difficult-to-produce electro-optic systems.

“Interoperability provides greater flexibility to the Army as well as increased opportunity to the industrial base,” said Fuller. “Cross-vendor interoperability provides the RTA capability to the Army while allowing the vendors opportunities to win awards on the FWS-I or ENVG III.” In other words, vendors are no longer tied to a winner-take-all approach on the FWS-I and ENVG III in order to provide the RTA capability that the Army desires. If one vendor provides better performance and a better price for one part of a system while another vendor provides a superior version of a different part, interoperability means the Army is not restricted to buying complete “sets” from one vendor or the other. It can buy what is best, and then mix and match to provide Soldiers with superior complete systems at the best possible price.

The FWS-I’s interoperability effort in EMD ensured that the weapon sight produced by one manufacturer would wirelessly transmit an image and work with another manufacturer’s ENVG. FWS-I is setting a new standard across the Army for partnering with industry and cross-collaboration among competing vendors. This will ensure that the total program will be fieldable, trainable, supportable and seamless to use, regardless of which vendors receive the awards for individual systems. This level of collaboration between competitors is new ground in defense acquisition that has great potential to grow in the coming years.


Rapid Target Acquisition technology functions when ENVG III and FWS-I are wirelessly paired, and gives Soldiers the capability to quickly locate and engage targets from any location without raising their weapon, improving Soldier safety and lethality. PM SMS worked with by BAE Systems and DRS Technologies to make sure that components created by one company paired seamlessly with those made by the other. (Image courtesy of PEO Soldier)

As the Army continues to invest in the individual Soldier’s lethality, communication and navigation capabilities on a digital platform, multiple vendors will need to figure out how to come together with a PM shop to provide solutions that allow their hardware to work together in order to provide a whole new capability. FWS-I is just the tip of the iceberg. More of this type of collaborative effort will be seen when efforts like the Intra Soldier Wireless and Integrated Soldier Sensor System, begin to come online.

Achieving robust interoperability meant a great deal more than simply writing a requirement for interoperability. It involved full participation of PM SMS, as well as resources and support for the testing and development necessary to achieve the goal. PM SMS provided funding for testing and development of interoperability as part of the FWS-I program.

“Interoperability must be incorporated early in the system integration effort,” said Dean Kissinger, technology lead for the FWS-I team. “Trying to retrofit systems to achieve interoperability would have introduced significant risk and cost to the program.” Consequently, PM SMS began planning early in the process.

The government team drafted an initial interface control document (ICD), which established a baseline for coordination between the government and vendor teams. “Our initial ICD was generic in some parts, allowing vendor-specific technical solutions to be added when the time was right,” Kissinger said. “This approach enabled early collaboration with the vendors to complete the document. We then facilitated the integration effort to ensure that the vendors’ hardware was able to communicate with each other and be compliant with the ICD.”

Partnering with competitors in writing the ICD wasn’t a typical process for the vendors. And while both vendors individually welcomed the idea of being involved, it took some time and effort for all parties to feel comfortable with the approach. Over the spring and summer of 2015, meetings were held to take the ICD from concept to reality. Vendors were invited to their competitor’s facilities for engineering working group sessions that slowly hammered out a way forward.


ENVG III and FWS-I provide dismounted soldiers with an integrated thermal targeting system to illuminate the night. PM SMS’s work to wirelessly link the Soldier’s maneuver sensor in the ENVG and the targeting sensor in the FWS gives the light fighter a battlefield capability previously enjoyed only by mechanized and armored forces. (Image courtesy of PEO Soldier)

“The government team had to earn the trust of both suppliers and facilitate the discussions so that we all felt comfortable sharing the level of detail required to be successful,” said Joe Tiano, program director for BAE. As this was the first time either vendor had been asked to work with a direct competitor, Tiano said, “Our expectations were low going into the effort because of the concerns with protecting intellectual property (IP) and being careful not to provide a competitive advantage.”

Tony Bacarella, senior director and dismounted portfolio leader for DRS, shared the same concerns. “It took a lot of effort on the part of the government to deliberately manage the process and provide DRS a level of comfort that they were able to facilitate the discussions while being sensitive to DRS’s IP concerns,” Bacarella said.

The meetings culminated in an operational excursion to WSMR in May 2016. For the very first time, representatives from both vendors and the government team witnessed the results of their labor in a cross-vendor operational environment. PM SMS put the systems in the hands of Soldiers and had them run missions in which the ENVG III and FWS-I from the different vendors were linked directly in the same environment. After every mission, Soldiers were asked if they could tell the difference between using pieces of equipment that came from the same vendor and using paired equipment from different vendors. The PM SMS team knew that their work had paid off when the Soldiers’ feedback indicated that they couldn’t tell the difference.

Leading up to the operational excursion at WSMR, Kissinger assumed responsibility for figuring out a new test methodology for this process, in close collaboration with both vendors. “The interoperability effort presented a unique challenge to the government team in terms of establishing requirements and structuring a test and evaluation plan for the interoperable system configurations,” he said. Coordination with both vendors was key to ensuring that all parties were in agreement regarding the established test methodology and procedures.

The government facilitated and performed all test events and included early software integration assessments during development of the interoperable systems. Testing of the final deliverable hardware included functional verification performed by PM SMS, laboratory characterization performed by the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD), and an operational assessment performed by the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command with Soldiers from NVESD, an element of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center. “It was crucial to have the program office actively functioning as an engaged intermediary throughout the whole process,” said Bacarella.

Tiano offered a final piece of advice to any program offices working in a similar situation. “Be proactive and upfront in defining the requirements, and involve the suppliers in the process. Describe what success looks like and the resulting benefits to the warfighter. Clearly define the test requirements to prove hardware interoperability.”


A test officer from the Program Executive Office (PEO) for Soldier tests a thermal weapon sight in an environmental test chamber on WSMR. A recent effort by PEO Soldier’s Product Manager for Soldier Maneuver Sensors (PM SMS) took a collaborative approach among vendors to ensure that weapon sight components interoperate more effectively. (Photo by Drew Hamilton, WSMR Public Affairs)

PEO Soldier had taken earlier steps, as well, to address the challenge of integrating Soldiers’ clothing, helmets, body armor, weapons, night vision and other equipment with the 2015 establishment of a product director for Soldier systems integration (PD SSI), to ensure that the clothing and equipment developed by different project managers could work together. PEO Soldier created working groups to bring together members of different project management offices, enhancing coordination. “This came about partly because of our continuing effort to provide new and more powerful capabilities for the Soldier, and partly because of our focus on integration and lightening the Soldier’s load,” said Lt. Col. Anthony E. Douglas, the current PM SMS.

By looking at integration and interoperability earlier in the acquisition process, PEO Soldier is stepping up its game on second- and third-order integration with weapons, body armor and helmets. Soldiers already mount night vision devices on their helmets, and put weapon sights and aiming lasers on their weapons. Technology is opening many new possibilities for equipment to communicate and work together.

The acquisition process will continue to adapt to meet Soldiers’ and taxpayers’ needs, but we, as acquisition professionals, often are not sure how those reforms translate to the individual program level. The task for us is to find ways to meet those needs by trying to streamline processes and existing requirements in innovative ways that make sense and save the taxpayers money.

For more information, contact the PEO Soldier Public Affairs Office at 703-704-2802 or go to

MAJ. NICHOLAS BREEN, until recently the assistant product manager for FWS-I at PEO Soldier, Fort Belvoir, Virginia, is now a portfolio manager in the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Plans, Programs and Resources at the Pentagon. He has an M.A. in liberal arts from Johns Hopkins University and a B.S. in political science from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He is Level II certified in program management.

This article will be printed in the October – December issue of Army AL&T magazine.

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