Peggy Miller

OPINION

How you can leverage the Army NIE program

For the Army Network Integration Evaluation (NIE) program the past year has represented a year of change and at times, debate.

The twice-yearly event focuses on shortening the cycle time of technology acquisition, driving cost savings, and more rapidly placing innovative capabilities in the hands of warfighters.

As is the case with many military programs, budget cuts and evolving priorities put into question the frequency and financial support for NIE. Program introspection is a good thing, and that is in part what makes NIE unique. NIE is soldier-led, which means that products and technologies are tested by users who understand how things need to work in-theater.

In 2013, PacStar’s flagship software became one of the first technologies successfully tested and acquired through the NIE program. It played a critical role in our ability to secure a contract to support the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical Increment 1 (WIN-T), the military’s largest mobile network communications program.

Through PacStar’s experience with NIE, we believe the program can and should continue to play a vital role in enhancing Army procurement and creating opportunities for small contractors to support the warfighter mission.

The value of NIE is realized through several benefits that it delivers:

Unprecedented opportunities for small businesses

For all but the largest government contractors and IT providers, the costs and resources required to stand up technology in a real-world environment can prevent promising solutions from reaching warfighters.

Because many decision makers are involved in evaluating and deciding upon which technologies to standardize on, it is hard to get everyone in a room to move decisions forward. The structure of NIE events makes it feasible for smaller contractors to put their technology through the required testing – both lab and field – by all key decision makers.

Smaller contractors often face a higher hurdle to establish credibility for their products relative to larger, more established brands. NIE enables smaller contractors to overcome this hurdle because technology is evaluated by program-based technical personnel, ensuring the technology meets program requirements – while also being evaluated by soldiers on the ground.

All of this helps to ensure that the market for military communications technology isn’t dominated by larger contractors with financial means to demo to all decision makers. By sharing the investment across multiple technologies, the Defense Department provides the most efficient means to evaluate new technologies, and enables the ability for smaller, more nimble technology developers to participate.

Speeds deployment of advanced technologies

It can take several years and millions of dollars for a technology provider to find, and then line up, every decision maker involved in a program-level procurement, especially in a program as immense as WIN-T.

Through NIE, DOD is able to access emerging technologies from smaller companies that often invest significant research and development time and funds on their own – that would not otherwise be available from large system integrators and primes. Because small companies are able to innovate at a rapid pace, this can result in faster adoption of advanced technologies.

Accelerated military adoption of advanced technologies is in part a product of speeding the procurement process in a resource-strained environment. Traditionally, smaller contractors such as PacStar are challenged to align all procurement, program, and technical decision makers to move forward with an opportunity.

NIE allowed PacStar to move all forward in synch, as it was only 9 months from the release of our NIE report to the WIN-T contract award. Finally, NIE also provided the funding to the WIN-T program to procure IQ-Core Software. This enabled the procurement to proceed much more quickly than if the procurement had followed the traditional program budgetary cycle.

Improves mission success through demonstrations in real-world environments

NIE provides a unique opportunity for contractors to demonstrate how technologies can (or cannot) interoperate with deployed US Army technologies – in a setting configured as closely as possible to battlefield conditions without being in harm’s way.

Absent NIE, demonstrations of new technologies need to be conducted in the lab, or through ad-hoc demonstrations/trials sponsored by small units. Lab-only-based demonstrations may not adequately reproduce field conditions, resulting in demonstrations that are only partially effective and must be followed up by in-field demonstrations.

Furthermore, small, isolated demonstrations conducted without the full visibility of all stakeholders, may suffer from a lack of buy-in around the product/technology requirements and gaps the product/technologies are intended to address – reducing effectiveness of the demonstration.

By providing the coordination of these evaluators, and by providing the equipment that matches the configuration of equipment in-theater, there is an improved chance for mission success.

For contractors considering the NIE program, there are several strategies that can enhance the probability of a successful outcome:

Put an “A” team on the project. Success is difficult if done by individuals with other priorities or who aren’t skilled to handle the event. Include staff from product engineering, as well as sales engineering.

Run the project as if it were a real customer deployment. This means backing the project with full support, on site.

Create a support team. It is valuable to have support at headquarters providing and developing all of the materials necessary, and customized to the exercise.  In PacStar’s case, we found it useful to have experienced project managers tending to every part of the project.

Be prepared for delays. As rapidly as the process can go, delays are a part of projects such as these whether it is within the government and commercial sector. Put in place contingencies to handle these delays.

Recognize that NIE is not optimal for every small contractor. Companies need to be prepared for a substantial expense, and need to have products/technology ready for deployment. Companies that cannot afford or justify on-the-ground support – along with the expense of multiple visits on-site to coordinate the project – should probably not participate. The proposal project alone, just to get started, can require significant material development that can be costly and time consuming.

Ensure your technology aligns to use case gaps. Companies also need to be sure their technology aligns closely with the documented “gaps” that NIE intends to address in the demonstrations, as well as having insight gleaned from program representatives offline to ensure a good match – as the documented “gaps” may be broad or misleading.

Within the government contractor industry, there has been a perception that NIE provided a strong opportunity for real-world technology testing and evaluation of new products, but less clear was the path to acquisition and adoption of these products within the DOD. Our first-hand experience shows that if a product meets an identified gap and performs well within the NIE exercise, rapid acquisition and adoption is possible.



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