A soldier uses the chat feature of a piece of networking equipment during a network integration evaluation. The Army plans to test all such equipment before making purchases. (Claire Schwerin/PEO C3T Public Affairs)

The Army is taking a new approach to purchasing networking equipment meant to electronically connect soldiers on the battlefield: buying in smaller quantities and testing gear before acquiring it.

The approach represents a marked departure from the large, developmental programs contractors are used to, but service officials say they’re holding regular meetings with industry officials and seeking to involve them earlier in the acquisition process.

“We’re really moving to a scenario where we’re better buyers,” said Col. Dan Hughes, an Army acquisition official. “We’re going to buy less more often.”

The Army spent years trying to build a network that would give soldiers better visibility into what was happening to soldiers and equipment on the battlefield as part of a multibillion-dollar program known as Future Combat Systems. That program was mostly dismantled, and the Army is taking what it calls an “agile process” approach to buying new systems that build its networking capability.

The centerpiece of this model is what the service calls network integration evaluations, or six-week events held semi-annually in which soldiers test equipment on a range in New Mexico so that the Army can see what works and what it wants to purchase.

Before equipment goes to the test range, the Army meets with applicants who want to demonstrate their systems. Companies with promising technology, such as radios, handheld devices or software, are invited to bring their products into Aberdeen, Md.-based labs, where they are tested with the existing network technology. The Army, working with the company, will identify weaknesses or problems that the company can then fix and retest to improve the capabilities, said Kelly Alexander, an Army project director.

The Army has held two exercises at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., to test equipment, and will soon release solicitations based on the results during the most recent one, which was held last fall. Even if the Army successfully tests one company’s system, it will release a solicitation open to other companies.

Hughes said the program is already helping the Army realize when its planned purchases won’t work out. For instance, while testing a wearable computer dubbed Nett Warrior, the Army realized it was too heavy and too expensive and came up with a cheaper and lighter alternative.

Additionally, as technology improves, the Army will be better able to adapt, rather than be invested in a long-standing, bulky program.

The Army is taking steps to inform industry about the changes, including holding a industry day at Aberdeen last month that attracted more than 280 industry representatives. The service, which is particularly trying to encourage small businesses to participate, plans to hold industry days twice annually.

Some companies that have relied on large programs are reluctant to move to the agile process, Hughes said, but “most of industry [is] actually looking at this as an opportunity.”

Nolen Bivens, vice president of Army agile acquisition for General Dynamics’ C4 systems unit, said the new approach moves faster, allowing companies with proven technologies to avoid a drawn-out acquisition process.

If the company has technology that meets the Army’s needs, “they’ve given us now an opportunity to expedite it,” Bivens said.