Not quite reform, but it works

By September 22, 2016September 3rd, 2018Army ALT Magazine, Commentary
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Integration, both a process and a mindset, holds the key to addressing a range of threats to the U.S., from the near-peer to the low-tech.

by Dr. Richard Nabors and Mr. Nathan Burkholder

In the past century, the U.S. military met the developing threats of modern warfare with solutions such as increasing mechanization, nuclear arms and precision-guided missiles, using a deliberate, intentional acquisition process. This process involved highly focused programs typically decades long and often executed by a single large defense contractor. These programs began several years after the establishment of requirements and could take 10 to 15 years of development before implementation.

However, today’s dynamic and rapidly changing technological landscape challenges the traditional acquisition process, as emerging technologies and global trends translate to new and unfamiliar threats. Conventional acquisition processes, with their inherent difficulty to adapt to change, limit technological development, and the resulting solutions become irrelevant when restricted to decade-old requirements. This fundamental weakness hampers achieving technological superiority in the modern age, when near-peer threats from China and Russia call for acquisition processes that can provide advanced high-tech solutions with relative quickness. At the same time, the increasing threat of hybrid warfare—which blends conventional warfare, irregular warfare and cyberwarfare—by Russia, Islamic terrorists and others demonstrates that enemies of the U.S. are adapting low-cost, relatively unsophisticated commercial technology far faster than the U.S. military’s traditional acquisition cycles can respond.

The short-term solution has been to create new acquisition methods—separate from but parallel to the traditional system—that are more adaptable to the rapidly changing threat. The question remains, however: In these environments, how, exactly, does the U.S. modify its acquisition process to address the need for rapid development and deployment of technology?


Christine Moulton, lead engineer in the Modeling and Simulation Division of CERDEC NVESD, explains the integrated sensor architecture (ISA) to Maj. Gen. Cedric T. Wins, then-director of force development in the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, during Wins’ visit July 13. Wins is now the commanding general of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command. The purpose of the ISA is to facilitate DOD’s use of cutting-edge sensor capabilities by promoting a common set of protocols and standards for communication and networking among sensor systems, in collaboration with commercial manufacturers and sensor developers. (Photo by Kay Stephens, U.S. Army CERDEC NVESD)

The answer lies in integration. Traditional acquisition processes are vertical in structure, usually involving only one contractor. Integrated acquisition processes are horizontal, bringing together multiple contractors and an array of products and processes while crafting the many into a powerful whole. More than just a buzzword, “integrated” describes organizations that are willing to look at themselves in the context of the world around them. They are willing to question their assumptions and have the humility to identify and pivot from courses of action that are no longer optimal. There are numerous examples of organizations and activities that, by implementing integration best practices within acquisition, succeeded in responding to a need faster and with a more diverse array of tools. These examples, which follow, have certain elements in common:

  • Creating a culture of proactive problem-solving.
  • Developing a framework for inserting cutting-edge commercial technology into military applications.
  • Facilitating horizontal integration with industry through structured exchanges.

Science and technology (S&T) developers and managers need the freedom to think about potential solutions for rapid integration and adaptation. An organization that is aware of the need for change and its potential benefits plans for and rewards change. It can identify and adapt early to emerging challenges such as the need for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities to counter anti-access and area denial requirements within the Asia-Pacific region, which in turn can create opportunities for the Army and DOD to save significant amounts of money.

A case in point is the development of third-generation forward-looking infrared (3rd Gen FLIR) imaging technology. This capability was successfully demonstrated on tactical systems in 2007 and has had positive impacts on many high-tech large system platforms, providing the U.S. with significant military advantages over near-peer threats in the Asia-Pacific region and Europe. The main significance of 3rd Gen FLIR is that it uses two different infrared bands that together provide imagery optimized for different missions and environments. Before 3rd Gen, platform developers had to choose from among different camera types, each with its own limitations. With 3rd Gen, a single camera system can integrate with multiple platforms and missions, reducing the costs and risks of maintaining multiple systems while increasing performance.

Supporting the development of 3rd Gen FLIR is the problem-solving culture created by organizations including the Night Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) of the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC). Focusing on the value of integration and encouraging its workforce by not penalizing those who question the status quo, NVESD set the stage for the S&T community to proactively identify and promote a shift in direction for established programs.


A technician uses a platen for creating multiwafer substrates. Multiple substrates are then combined to make infrared focal plane arrays, which provide better performance than traditional technology at a much lower cost. The VISTA program established a new industrial base for focal planes in a model of horizontal integration by promoting an internal culture of integration. (Photo by Dr. Amy W.K. Liu, LQ PLC)

Rather than taking a passive role and simply responding to requirements, NVESD supported the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command in its integration of new requirements into the acquisition cycle based on the emerging capabilities provided by 3rd Gen. NVESD also worked with the program management community, which was fielding systems, to explore the integration of new capabilities provided by 3rd Gen into established program plans with minimal disruption and maximum benefit.

“By emphasizing the value of integration within our workforce, our engineers and scientists were sensitized to the value of developing with change in mind,” stated Dr. Donald A. Reago Jr., NVESD director. “This paid huge dividends in enabling our staff to support others with integrating emerging technologies into conventional acquisition programs.”

The U.S. military is now integrating 3rd Gen FLIR technologies across multiple platforms, including the Stryker and the Joint Strike Fighter.

Organizations that recognize the value of deliberately planning for future unknown technology can take advantage of development opportunities to insert cutting-edge technologies fast enough to be operationally useful. Establishing frameworks for inserting commercial technology allows the military to develop solutions that can adapt rapidly in response to hybridized or near-peer threats, even within complex systems with long lead times. This framework enables acquisition to leverage areas of technology experiencing explosive growth.

For example, the global trend toward the “internet of things” is rapidly expanding sensor development within the commercial landscape. For DOD to take advantage of this trend and militarize these capabilities on a timely schedule for the plethora of military systems using sensors, an integrated sensor architecture (ISA) is necessary to provide a framework for incorporating future sensor technologies as yet unknown.

There is a push within DOD to establish an ISA, which involves working with commercial manufacturers and sensor developers to promote a common set of protocols and standards for how the sensor systems communicate and network. (See “Hybrid Threats, Hybrid Thinking,” Army AL&T, January-March 2015.)


The ISA establishes standards that bring together sensors within an area of operation so they can communicate without requiring physical integration. This approach is an example of how organizations applied integration best practices within acquisition to bridge the gap between the high- and low-tech threats facing the U.S. (Photo by Edric Thompson, U.S. Army CERDEC)

Horizontal integration enables the U.S. military to develop conventional, large military systems using the “best of the best” from across the entire industrial base. Traditional acquisition practices have tended to promote a vertical integration framework, whereby large defense contractors develop isolated systems and component technologies with proprietary interfaces that significantly limit the ability for innovation and cross-pollination from other companies and industries.

The sensor community recently developed and successfully demonstrated a horizontal integration model in the Vital Infrared Sensor Technology Acceleration (VISTA) program. (See “Breaking Barriers to Collaboration,” Army AL&T, July-September 2016.)

The model incorporated the following critical aspects:

  • Engaging the user community.
  • Using trusted entities to share breakthroughs between competitors.
  • Facilitating industrial buy-in.

The key to the success of this model was in how the government organizations involved saw themselves as “trusted entities,” whose primary role was to facilitate vigorous dialogue and information exchange among all of the competing contractors. Additionally, these trusted entities used their position to distribute government-funded intellectual property across the entire industrial base.

This enabled a far greater number of defense contractors to participate and build on previous technical successes than a traditional, vertically integrated acquisition would allow. It also helped ensure the development of systems in which no single entity was the sole proprietor. This significantly reduced the risk that closed, proprietary systems would limit participation, innovation and collaboration by other third parties in the future.

Successful programs such as VISTA, which established a new industrial base for focal planes, have demonstrated how organizations can have radical impacts on the acquisition process by promoting an internal culture of integration.


A Soldier operates a prototype Long-Range Advanced Scout Surveillance System containing novel 3rd Gen FLIR components. The beauty of 3rd Gen is that it enables a single camera system to integrate with multiple platforms and missions. Previously, platform developers had to choose between different camera types, each with limitations. Thus, not only does 3rd Gen increase performance, but it also reduces the costs and risks associated with maintaining multiple systems. (Photo by Kay Stephens, U.S. Army CERDEC NVESD)

One of America’s greatest assets in overcoming the challenges posed by the complex threat environments of today and the future is the optimism of its people and their ability to achieve what they put their minds to. This mindset is evident in the innovative solutions and entrepreneurial spirit that are alive and well within the industrial base.

Creating models and frameworks that allow defense acquisition to tap into this resource is critical to harnessing the country’s strengths to provide long-term U.S. military dominance. Government organizations that intentionally and systematically see themselves as facilitators of integration with industry, rather than competitors of industry, are redefining acquisition.

While reimagining defense acquisition could take decades, the military is already demonstrating how significant improvements are possible within existing acquisition processes, through bottom-up execution. Whether it is the 3rd Gen FLIR community developing an organizational culture of problem-solvers, the development of an integrated sensor architecture providing a framework for technology insertion or the VISTA program facilitating productive engagements with industry, the power of integration is at the core of these successes. This focus on integration is a mindset that permeates everything the organization does, with cascading effects across the entire enterprise.

Acquisition policy reform is needed, but positive changes are already happening, and much can be learned from organizations that have taken steps to shape acquisition processes to meet the dynamic environments of today and tomorrow.

For more information, contact Nabors at, 703-704-1768 or U.S. Army CERDEC NVESD, RDER-NVO (Nabors), 10221 Burbeck Road, Fort Belvoir, VA 22060. Or contact Burkholder at or U.S. Army CERDEC NVESD, RDER-NVO (Burkholder), 10221 Burbeck Road, Fort Belvoir, Virginia 22060.

DR. RICHARD NABORS is the associate for strategic planning and deputy director of the Operations Division at CERDEC NVESD, Fort Belvoir. He holds a doctor of management degree in organizational leadership from the University of Phoenix, an M.S. in management from the Florida Institute of Technology and a B.A. in history from Old Dominion University. He is Level I certified in program management.

MR. NATHAN BURKHOLDER is a strategic analyst for KITEWIRE Inc. who supports CERDEC NVESD. He holds a B.S. in engineering from Messiah College.

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

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