Every lover of old movies knows of Inspector Harry Callahan, the world-weary detective made famous by Clint Eastwood in a series of classic 1970s films. Harry was not only a tough guy and deadly with his massive handgun but a practical philosopher. In the 1973 movie Magnum Force, Harry delivers the memorable line: “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
This pearl of wisdom applies not just to individuals but to organizations as well, particularly for those offices in the Department of Defense responsible for equipping America’s warfighters. One of the main reasons defense programs go awry is that the responsible organizations fail to know their limitations when it comes to such things as span of control, management capability, subject matter expertise or agility. This is most obvious in the case of DoD’s attempts to manage its information technology (IT) and services. IT changes every 12 to 18 months; it often takes DoD 2 or 3 years to formulate requirements, write a request for proposal, evaluate proposals and award a contract (always assuming that there is no protest by the losers). Moreover, the expertise in IT rests not with the government but in the private sector.
A textbook example of what can be achieved when DoD adheres to the wisdom of Harry Callahan is in the relatively prosaic area of soldier clothing and equipment. Program Executive Office (PEO) Soldier, the organization responsible for providing the necessary clothing and equipment for U.S. forces going to Afghanistan, was confronted by the requirement to provide those troops with appropriate cold weather gear. Knowing that they lacked time, experience in developing such gear and knowledge of the supply chain, PEO Soldier accepted their limitations and did two things right. First, it adopted the basic cold weather clothing system developed by Special Operations Command rather than trying to start from scratch. The clothing suite selected is called the GEN III Extended Climate Weather Clothing System. GEN III consists of seven layers of clothing including undergarments and gloves and is available in about fifteen different sizes.
But second, and perhaps more important, PEO Soldier recognized that it was limited by the traditional approach to contracting when it came to acquiring rapidly a multi-layer clothing ensemble produced by a largely commercial vendor base that consists of many small companies. So rather than letting multiple contracts for each item in the ensemble and trying to manage the overall effort itself, PEO Soldier conducted a competition for a system integrator/prime contractor for the ensemble. The system integrator is responsible of ensuring that all the items in the ensemble meet specifications, that complete sets are assembled in the appropriate sizes and quantities to outfit all the personnel of units going into the field, and that any improvement to a piece of clothing is successfully integrated into the overall ensemble. PEO Soldier conducts oversight and provides direction; when GEN III requires a modification, the government only has to deal with one contractor or modify one contract.
PEO Solder has used this approach to acquire other types of clothing and equipment. One of these is the Fire Resistant Environmental Ensemble (FREE) which provides a layered ensemble of clothing designed to enhance protection for the warfighter while also keeping the individual comfortable, dry and warm. Another, simpler acquisition is for a soldier sleep system that provides heavy and light sleeping bags, a storage sack and a waterproof cover. In all three cases, the government recognized and accepted its limitations with respect to managing complex supply chains and turned that responsibility over a systems integrator/prime vendor.
PEO Soldier should consider extending the use of the system integrator/prime vendor approach to such areas as the holistic management of body armor with load carriage systems and integrated hydration solutions, climbing kits/ski instruction kits, modular boot system and a future integrated headborne assembly which would combine the helmet with tactical communications, optical devices and ear protection. The Defense Logistics Agency, which is responsible for sustainment of the GEN III and FREE systems, would be wise to recognize its limitations when it comes to contracting for multi-item systems and clothing ensembles and adopt the approach employed by PEO Soldier.
Find Archived Articles: