A High-Profile OTA Program Goes Off the Rails.

Author:Magnuson, Stew

* It had to happen at some point. A high-profile, big-ticket Army program using an other transaction authority agreement has turned into a fiasco.

In December, the Army Contracting Command announced it was canceling and resoliciting a contract issued in October to manufacture hundreds of robotic mules. This is bad news.

For critics of the Army's acquisition system, it's another example of the service's poor record over the last 20 to 30 years of developing and fielding new weapon systems. While Army leadership say they are going to speed procurement of badly needed technology to take on "great powers"--this is a black mark and will certainly get the attention of Congress.

And the same goes for proponents of other transaction authority agreements--touted as a way to put new technology into the hands of warfighters faster by forgoing the traditional acquisition system.

The program in question is the squad multipurpose equipment transport, or SMET, the Army's answer to helping dismounted troops lighten their loads. This so-called robotic mule has been on the service's wish list dating back to the Future Combat Systems program, which was canceled in 2009.

After years of development, field tests and the validation of requirements, the Army decided to proceed with a development program in 2017. That coincided with the emergence of the enhanced other transaction authority, or OTA.

OTAs had been around for decades. But the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act tweaked the law and allowed the military to change how they were used in several important ways. The agreements allow contractors to go around the cumbersome Federal Acquisition Regulation to develop prototypes and transition them to new capabilities.

Previously, they were reserved mostly for small businesses, universities and "nontraditional defense contractors" to build prototypes. That restriction was relaxed and the primes can now compete for the contracts as long as they had some participation from the "smalls," participate through a consortium, or if a senior procurement official proclaims that there were "exceptional circumstances."

But the real attraction for contracting officers is the ability to take a prototype developed under an OTA and move it to a production contract, as long as there is a competition to see who has the best product.

OTAs in the military jumped from 34 prototype contracts in 2016 to 173 in 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office. SMET was one...

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