As the U.S. Army tries to field new mobile networking technology to its troops, it is betting that a new testing process built around biannual “Network Integration Evaluations” can avoid the acquisition disasters of the past. Success depends on a new division of labor between government and industry – something which the Army admits it is still thrashing out.

“It is a maturing process,” said Col. John Morrison of the Army Staff, speaking to reporters at the service’s new network technology campus at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. “The fall was the first time that we had our industry partners playing, [and] we know we’ve got to improve our feedback mechanisms to industry.”

Morrison was responding to industry complaints about last November’s Network Integration Evaluation at Fort Bliss, Texas. That “NIE” was the second in what the Army intends to make a six-month cycle of soliciting ideas from industry, evaluating them in labs like those at Aberdeen, and then testing the technologies in the field with real soldiers. The idea is to acquire new technology in bite-sized chunks, instead of the “great leap forward” that the Army attempted with its now-cancelled Future Combat Systems program.

“This is a completely different business model,” said Morrison. “If you looked at FCS, it was a completely integrated, tightly coupled, single humungous program,” he said. “FCS was a huge R&D effort by the Army. That was a fundamental mistake. I shouldn’t have said it quite that bluntly, but it was a fundamental mistake…. We know that building network capability is not the Army’s core competency. We know that building network capability is industry’s core competency.”

It’s a sign of how delicate the new balance of power is that other Army officials present hastened to caveat Col. Morrison’s statement. While the government isn’t building the network, it is building the essential architecture into which industry’s offerings must fit. “We really are the network integrators,” said Jennifer Zbozny, the project’s chief engineer. “That’s a significant difference from where we’ve been before, where the Army tends to contract those things out.”

Zbozny works for what’s called PEO C3T, the Army’s Program Executive Office for Command, Control, and Communications (Tactical). “I’m a government person,” she emphasized. “The folks that do really the heavy hitting in terms of building all these network products all work for us…. Industry is still building [specific] products, but they’re building based on standards and specifications that the government is providing.” That’s a crucial difference from the failed Future Combat Systems program, where the Army appointed a contractor team, led by Boeing and SAIC, as “lead systems integrator.” Many in the Army felt they delegated far too many decisions to industry on FCS and let the already ambitious program split entirely out of control.

So which is it? Is the Army trying to impose more control on industry or less? The answer is “yes, both.” This time, the service will not delegate the central task of fitting all the individual pieces of hardware and software into a single functioning system. But as long as industry’s offerings are compatible with the Army’s architecture, the service is giving industry far more leeway to propose alternative technologies.

That new balance is possible – albeit tricky to achieve – because the Army has radically reined in its ambition. Instead of attempting to invent a whole package of groundbreaking technologies, as it tried and failed to do in FCS, the Army simply wants to catch the wave of innovation that’s already underway in the commercial IT sector and acquire incremental upgrades for its own networks. “The computer sitting inside the FCS vehicle was something the government essentially paid to develop,” said Zbozny. “We’re not doing that. We’re saying, ‘We need a computer. Bring us a computer.”

So for the next Network Integration Evaluation, to be held in May, industry proposed no less than 145 different systems. Based on those paper proposals, the Army invited less than half to submit physical products for testing in its own labs. Of the 55 technologies the service ended up testing (some of the invited companies dropped out), only 15 were deemed ready for the troops to test at Fort Bliss. The first physical products for the next round will arrive in the labs at Aberdeen on Monday, competing for a place in a Network Integration Evaluation this fall.

If the process works as planned, the Army will have a steady, manageable stream of technology upgrades to field to its brigades every six months. That’s not the breakthrough hoped for with FCS, but it might just be good enough.