Advancing Squad-Level Mobility
From Armor & Mobility, May/June 2018 Issue
U.S. Army Program Executive Office Combat Systems and Combat Service Support (PEO CS&CSS) is leveraging Other Transactional Authority (OTA), technical demonstrations, and Soldier feedback to speed acquisition of the Army’s new Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transport (SMET) robotic ‘mule.’
By Program Executive Office Combat Support & Combat Service Support
As power and equipment demands continue to increase Soldiers’ logistical burdens, the U.S. Army is working with industry to capitalize on advances in power efficiency, robotic technology, and acquisition tools to accelerate a new “robotic mule.” Commercial industry thrives on rapid technological development, but current acquisition processes often make it difficult for the military to follow suit—meaning that technology can become obsolete before it is even in the hands of Soldiers. In the words of Lt. Gen. Paul Ostrowski, Principal Military Deputy to the Army Acquisition Executive, “I’ve got to get that capability out there faster. I’ve got to think of innovative ways to do so.” Key leaders in Congress and DoD have recognized this deficiency in the acquisition process and have outlined initiatives to shrink the timeline required to develop and field new capabilities to Soldiers.
After initial work with industry to define the art of the possible and potential requirements for a system that would help carry Soldiers’ loads and charge their batteries, the Army set a new, faster course in early 2017. The Army Requirements Oversight Committee (AROC) Capabilities Board gave clear direction to “get it done faster and cheaper,” and the Squad Multipurpose Equipment Transporter (SMET) program, managed within the PEO CS&CSS, began to break new ground.
Shortly after that meeting, Lt. Gen. John Murray, Deputy Chief of Staff, G-8, approved a “Directed Requirement” for SMET with three basic requirements:
- Carry up to 1,000 pounds of Soldier load
- Operate for 60 miles within 72 hours
- Silent run-capability generating 3 kilowatts stationary power and 1 kilowatt mobile
Accelerating Capability Procurement
At its core, the SMET program aims to lighten Soldiers’ loads by providing infantry brigade combat teams (IBCTs) the ability to removing physical loads to improve Soldiers’ physical and cognitive capabilities. PEO CS&CSS’s Product Management Team for Applique and Large Unmanned Ground Systems (PM ALUGS), within Program Manager for Force Projection, undertook the challenge to “get it done faster and cheaper” by developing a strategy using experimentation and technical demonstrations to streamline the acquisition process. Using an innovative contracting approach through an “Other Transactional Authority” (OTA) – a more flexible, responsive, and collaborative tool designed to speed acquisition and modernization – the SMET team hosted an industry day and released a request for project proposal just six weeks after the directed requirement was issued.
Designed to alleviate contracting, communication and collaboration issues common to the FAR-based acquisition process, OTAs invigorate research and development by allowing the military to incentivize industry to team with nontraditional and small business partners. Utilizing the National Advanced Mobility Consortium OTA in coordination with the Vehicle and Robotics Alliance Program Office of the U.S. Army Tank Automotive Research, Development and Engineering Center, this flexible contracting mechanism made it possible for the SMET team to tap into the cutting-edge capabilities of nontraditional defense contractors—embracing experimentation and assessment to inform and speed program decisions.
Under this OTA, PM ALUGS established a rapid, multi-phase acquisition strategy for SMET to rapidly work with both industry and Soldiers—harnessing the best feedback from both. For Phase I, after just a week of reviewing proposals, PM ALUGS invited 10 industry robotic suppliers to bring their SMET candidate systems to a challenging five-day assessment held at Fort Benning, GA, in September 2017. In Phase I, contractors demonstrated their respective systems’ capabilities through rigorous 24-hour testing, which included off-road maneuvering, gap crossing, water fording, and lateral and vertical slope testing. Using the test data collected at the assessment, an evaluation team in one week utilized OTA principles of open communication and “less paperwork is more” to select four system solutions for Phase II.
Implementing an IBCT Approach
The SMET Phase II technology demonstration strategy calls for issuing 16 systems from each of the final four designs to infantry brigade combat teams. The IBCTs will train with the systems for one year with maintenance support from the vendors on the platforms using commercial-off-the-shelf operator manuals and training packages. This approach gets at a core Army leader priority: early Soldier input. In a typical acquisition strategy, a limited user test occurs after a system contract award, but the SMET strategy involves Soldiers early in the acquisition process to experiment and assess the systems to influence system requirements and determine if current industry solutions will work. The Soldiers’ feedback will directly refine the programs requirements well before the Army decides to acquire or develop the final system design.
The Phase II yearlong technology demonstration also allows industry to continue to competitively develop robotic technology while the Army finalizes SMET system requirements. The Phase II technology demonstration incentivizes the four contractors throughout the yearlong event to advance their respective systems as the program moves to select one solution at the completion of the demonstration as the program of record. This acquisition strategy provides for a competitive, technology-driven milestone development decision—moving right into a program of record low rate initial production solution just 18 months after validation of the capability production document. And because of the team’s flexible approach, future capabilities, changes, and adjustments are also possible. Future capabilities could be introduced in the form of modular mission payloads tailoring the SMET to specific mission needs, such as dismounted engineer mobility systems; remote weapon stations; casualty evacuation, and unmanned aerial systems and reconnaissance.
The SMET is the benchmark for rapid acquisition within PEO CS&CSS, as PM ALUGS has employed innovative methods for hosting an industry day, source selection and experimentation for requirements, thereby championing experimental acquisition processes. Implementing a strategy using a competitive OTA in lieu of an engineering and manufacturing development FAR-based contract, industry and the Army are able to create an open and collaborative working environment during the establishment of program requirements and objectives. Program requirements are not set at a micro level but are instead established at the macro level, giving industry the ability to provide a wide range of solutions, not just for the Army, but with the Army. Working openly with industry, utilizing currently available technology and employing nontraditional acquisition practices provides a path to streamline acquisition while simultaneously confirming through Soldier experimentation and feedback that the requirement fills a capability gap.