When the Army initially launched the Soldier Protection System program in 2013, contracts for soldier systems items were falling off drastically and companies were more than happy to participate with the promise of developing a new, leap ahead system consisting of multiple components. It was exciting. SPS was touted as the future and industry wanted to be a part of it.
To give readers a frame of reference, here is a basic description of Soldier Protection System – Torso and Extremity Protection:
SPS-TEP is a PEO Soldier sponsored development program managed by LTC Kathy M. Brown, PM Soldier Protective Equipment. While it includes armored combat clothing (BCS), Blast Pelvic Protector (BPP), and new Load Distribution System (LDS), the heart of SPS TEP is the Modular Scalable Vest, one of four systems which integrates into the SPS TEP and consists of a low profile vest with four soft armor panels (one front, one back, and two side cummerbunds) covered in a camouflage cloth and hook and loop. Like current systems, soft armor panels are inserted into a tactical outer carrier that also accommodates hard armor protective inserts. The tactical outer carrier also contains two side plate pocket that will accommodate soft armor inserts. The outer carrier is made of a flame resistant outer cloth, webbings, hook/loop, polyethylene stiffener, a quad-release system, and several other non-ballistic materials.
There is also a Load Distribution System designed to offer the capability to redistribute the weight burden on the torso vest and load bearing while being carried horizontally, close to the body’s center of mass. The LDS is an integral part of the SPS TEP design with the LDS belt containing soft armor that provides fragmentation and handgun protection to the lower back and abdomen region. The LDS will provide Warfighters with the ability to mount additional equipment directly to the belt using the MOLLE retention system. The ruck integration component includes: a frame adapter, torso vest compatible shoulder straps, and an LDS belt adapter.
Unfortunately, the program faced an early misstep when the original solicitation was released, canceled and then a revised version reissued not long after. Industry trust was shook when elements of industry bids were integrated into this new requirement for all to see. What companies considered advantages over others in the process were now there for all to integrate into their proposals. Interegtating good ideas is something that should have happened earlier in the requirement process, during the Sources Sought phase, when industry is expected to help government refine their requirement by serving as a barometer and forming a vision of the state of the art. It’s not fair to write a requirement, open a solicitation and then close it, rewrite the requirement with elements of proposals and then resissue it with those new elements. But, this isn’t the first point of contention in the SPS TEP program. It’s an issue that has been constant throughout all components of the overarching program strategy. The big issue is that they were trying to save a buck on Personal Protective Equipment.
Across the board, within all SPS components and in spite of language in the 2014 and 2015 National Defense Authorizations Acts calling for the use of “Best Value” contracting, the solicitations have been issued under “Lowest Price, Techically Acceptable” criteria. This is an oversimplification, and I’m sure a contracting officer will comment, trying to justify the Army’s defiance of the Congressional language, but LPTA means that your body armor is assured to be made by the lowest bidder.
With SPS-TEP, the Army has taken LPTA to a new level. Despite having three vendor teams (Hawk, Point Blank and Safariland) with competitive systems that met all of the solictation’s requirements, PEO Soldier decided to enter a fourth, government owned solution cobbled together from different components. Naturally, that is what they selected. Of course, industry was disappointed. Why wouldn’t they be? They had spent millions of dollars to prepare their submissions. The heart of this winning government solution is a developmental USMC modular scalable vest that the Marines do not plan to field. After testing the vest, the Marines chose rather to purchase additional Plate Carriers.
These photos show Maj James Pelland, former team lead for Marine Corps Systems Command’s Individual Armor Team demonstrating the Modular Scalable Vest. Below, you can see him negotiating an obstacle course wearing the MSV. The bottom portion of the Load Distribution System is also visible in the photo, which allegedly still has some issues. Additionally, Maj Pelland doesn’t appear to be wearing any plates in the MSV.
On 21 July, 2015, Bethel Industries, Jersey City, New Jersey, (W91CRB-15-D-0019); Hawk Protection Inc., Pembroke Pines, Florida, (W91CRB-15-D-0020); and KDH Defense Systems Inc., Eden, North Carolina, (W91CRB-15-D-0021), were awarded a $49,000,000 shared firm-fixed-price contract for the Soldier Protection System modular vest by the US Army. These lowest bidders are manufacturing the Army’s design. It all sounds great for the bean counters. In fact, everyone would be impressed if what they were buying was what the Army said it actually needed at the outset of the program. Unfortunately, it would take a requirement change to do that, and that’s just what they did.
In spite of all of the other issues, this next bit is probably the most disheartening part of the entire affair. The “Army” system didn’t meet all of the requirements of the solicitation, so they changed them mid-program. There are several minor conundrums such as the Load Carrying Equipment not quite working in concert with the Marine Corps body armor vest, and an immature Load Distribution System, but the most dramatic of these changes is the decision to drop the requirement for female fit body armor. The MSV option the Army has selected, doesn’t feature a female fit at all.
(PFC Cheryl Rogers grins as 2LT Chelsea Adams helps her into the new Generation III Female Improved Outer Tactical Vest, Nov 28, 2013. The Soldiers, who are part of the 1st ABCT Female Engagement Team, Third Infantry Division, were preparing to deploy to Afghanistan.)
The Army, who not long ago drew praise from Congress for their multi-year effort to develop a female version of the Improved Outer Tactical Vest (IOTV), decided to leave female Soldiers high and dry in the future by simply eliminating the requirement. They’ve put years into developing female body armor and now, they just toss it aside. To make matters worse, they are still under contract to work on improving female body armor fit with the firm, Body Lab.
Consider this; as of fiscal year 2014, women represent about 14 percent of the active Army, 23 percent of the Army Reserve and 16 percent of the Army National Guard as of fiscal year 2014. With the Army working to open additional positions in combat formations to women, this move can only be seen as a step backward.
Ultimately, SPS remains a developmental ‘science project’ with limited buys and actual system testing to commence after the new year. There is no promise of full type classification and issue across the force. However, while the Army was sure to have learned much from the program, and in particular from the commercial designs it evaluated, millions of dollars and countless hours were expended by both industry and government in pursuit of this requirement. It would be a pity if it turns out in further testing that the Army backed the wrong horse while trying to save a couple of bucks. Their actions regarding PPE contracts have certainly garnered the attention of those on the Hill who hold their purse strings. To make matters worse, they’ll probably have to explain why they failed to capitalize on their work to offer PPE for females and end up spending even more taxpayer money when several viable options were at their fingertips throughout the down select portion of this program. Conducting program after program where there is no return on investment for industry is starting to wear thin.