A Pentagon Procurement Program That Seems Doomed to Fail
The Pentagon spends more money on federal contracts and relies more on private contractors to provide necessary support than all other U.S. government agencies combined. It writes lots of large, long-term contracts, particularly for major weapons platforms. Over the past several decades, the size and duration of contractors for services, particularly in the areas of information technology (IT) and networking, have increased significantly. The problem with massive, long-duration IT contracts is that the pace of technological change often makes them out-of-date almost from the start. An example of one such big contract is the Navy’s new contract to manage multiple IT networks, called the Next Generation Enterprise-Recompete (NGEN-R).
With a potential ceiling of almost $8 billion dollars, the NGEN-R is one of the largest non-hardware contracts ever awarded. The primary objective of the contract is to manage, modernize and eventually merge several massive Navy and Marine Corps networks that collectively encompass some 400,000 computers and 800,000 users at 2,500 locations. NGEN-R will provide secure data and information technology services such as data storage, email, cloud services, and video teleconferencing for Navy and Marine Corps ships and locations around the world.
As if this were not in itself a major undertaking, the Navy acquisition bureaucracy decided to make the effort even more challenging. First, it decided to split what had been for twenty years a single contract into two: a smaller hardware-centric section, and a larger one focused on services and support. Second, the Navy chose to assume the responsibility for overall management of the two contracts. Third, it awarded the services contract to Leidos, a company with no prior experience in providing support to major Navy/Marine Corps networks. Fourth, the new contract sets an extremely aggressive schedule for transferring responsibility for multiple networks from the existing contractors, who have some 30 years of experience in this field.
The NGEN-R award repeats an often-seen pattern in defense acquisitions, particularly those involving IT services and support contracts. The acquisition bureaucracy isn’t satisfied with incremental advancements; it wants to preside over “transformational change.” As a consequence, it dispenses with experienced contractors and tried-and-true approaches in favor of modernizing complex networks. This same bureaucracy buys into the new contractor’s promises that it can effortlessly take over for its predecessors, and then simultaneously integrate and modernize the Navy’s networks—all while lowering costs. We’ve seen this movie many times before and it never ends well.
When an IT network procurement goes wrong, a lot of bad things can happen. The most immediate impacts will be slow responses to individual needs and major events alike. In the former case, this results in increased dissatisfaction and frustration; in the latter case, missions are endangered when Sailors and Marines can’t get data or effectively communicate. Furthermore, it’s less than helpful when the “green” service desk team—the place where one goes for IT support—is struggling to understand how things work. Compounding this demand for IT help is the age of the technology, as refresh cycles for replacement laptops and PCs were likely put on hold until the new team was firmly in place. In the longer term, the Navy risks backsliding on everything it has accomplished over the last 20 years to consolidate its networks, standardize its technology and rein in IT spending.
Were these normal times, the Navy and its new contractor might have the time and resources to weather the inevitable delays, service interruptions, and cost increases that will result from the acquisition bureaucracy's desire to have the new contractors do it faster, better and cheaper. However, these are extraordinary times. We are in a crisis in which clear communications and a reliable network are much more important than they were when the contract was awarded. Like everyone else in the world, the Department of the Navy faced a massive challenge in getting several hundred thousand Sailors, Marines and civilians set up to telework and unlike a business, the important mission—protecting the United States—did not stop to wait for the IT to catch up with this radical change. The Navy’s networks have had to be reconfigured in real time while adding new nodes (such as two hospital ships deployed to support New York and Los Angeles’ health systems) and ensuring that both the Navy’s networks and connections to medical networks across the country are viable and secure.
There are already signs that the NGEN-R contract is heading for difficult times. The most notable was the early talk by the winning bidder about changing the solution that they proposed. In a recent interview, Gerry Fasano, head of Leidos’s Defense Group, acknowledged that the network “has continued to evolve, and so we’ll update ourselves from what we proposed and then worked through our transition plans.” Read this to mean: get ready for lots of change orders as the company attempts to make good on all its commitments.
In late April, the Department of the Navy’s Chief Information Officer, Aaron Weis, said in an interview that the Navy has been looking to “jumpstart” modernization—which is the right thinking—but expressed concern that the recently-awarded NGEN contract was the best path forward: "One of the first things we really talked about was do we stop NGEN-R and reset it given what we thought we needed to do. The reality is, given the acquisition timeframes, it probably would've set us back another year." In hindsight, that would not have been a high price to pay.
The Navy’s plan to modernize its IT networks is likely to be dead in the water for an extended period while the NGEN contract transitions and networks struggle to deal with the new reality of communications in the era of COVID-19. While the acquisitions folks won’t feel a bit of pain, the Sailors and Marines and the state and local communities they are trying to help certainly will.
The NGEN-R award is currently in protest. But whatever the outcome, the Navy should take the opportunity to reconsider its rush towards an unpredictable future. The Navy needs a different approach, one that doesn’t put its networks and thus its pandemic response at risk, much less the security of the Nation and tens of thousands of Sailors and Marines. It would be wise for the Navy to suspend the NGEN-R contract and pursue a new competition.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.