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SPS: The Essential Acquisition Tool for Overseas Logisticians

The general public might assume that a humanitarian mission’s crowning moments are like those experienced by Major Mark Johnson on 6 August 2003. That is when he sat on a grandstand with Cambodian and U.S. officials at a bridge dedication ceremony in Banteay Meanchey Province, surrounded by 20,000 cheering Cambodians eager to honor him and his team for building the new span.

But Johnson, the U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC) contingency contracting officer assigned to the 45th Corps Support Group, and the logisticians he supports credit much of their success to the Standard Procurement System (SPS) software at their fingertips. After all, Johnson is the man who introduced the use of SPS for humanitarian assistance missions when he was assigned to work with the system as part of the Cobra Gold military exercise in 2001.

Since then, Johnson has assisted with humanitarian building projects in Guam, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Fiji, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam—all with SPS by his side and only three to six people in his supporting contracting activity. Johnson’s success with SPS is even more amazing when one considers that he was never formally trained on the system. “I literally got off the tank in Hawaii for my 30 days, was put on Cobra Gold, and the whole thing started rolling,” he explains. “If we can do it based on those circumstances, then anybody can learn SPS. It’s not rocket science.”

The Right Tool: A Logistics Multiplier

When SPS began as an automated system for writing contracts in 1996, it was seen as the logical way to use technology to streamline an everyday task. The concept was to automate the basic procurement functions across the military services and civilian agencies—one standard system for the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, 13 Department of Defense (DOD) agencies, and the logistics, acquisition, and financial management communities. In the ensuing 8 years, SPS has evolved from theory to reality: a fully operational system that handled $48 billion in goods and services purchased in fiscal year 2003 alone.

As a key element supporting the goal of DOD’s Business Management Modernization Program—to establish common enterprise architecture requirements for all DOD information technology systems in acquisition, logistics, and financial management—SPS’s accomplishments in headquarters and garrisons are notable. For starters, thanks to SPS’s automation, many business processes have been eliminated or improved to take advantage of time-saving measures. SPS not only has ensured that critically needed goods and services arrive on time to warfighters on the front lines, it also has reduced the number of administrative personnel needed to execute procurement functions.

SPS in the Field

“ But a garrison is nice buildings with Muzak,” cautions George Chavis of the Army Contracting Agency, the Army’s SPS Desk Officer. “It’s easy to follow the rules step by step there. In [a] contingency, you may be working on a street corner with a guy who doesn’t speak English. The ultimate mission is to get the job done.”
Humanitarian missions provide the perfect training ground for contingency war theaters like Iraq and Afghanistan. In a nutshell, U.S. officials in a foreign country submit specific project requests to their defense attaché office, which sifts through the embassy’s objectives in deciding which projects to forward to the joint service commands. These commands review the lists they receive and turn in recommendations to the Joint Staff for approval. Each command then posts the official list of approved projects to the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps to divvy up for execution.

Projects follow one of two blueprints: humanitarian assistance, where the U.S. assistance team works with local contractors and materials, or humanitarian civic action, where U.S. troops support the project. Obviously, humanitarian civic action creates greater challenges because supporting troops means that contingency contracting personnel need to buy more than just materials for the project itself—they must procure everything from concrete mixers to bottled water. Sometimes, the logistics are as complicated as they were in Vanuatu, an island nation in the Pacific, where the contracting officer (KO) had to procure hotel accommodations for U.S. personnel, sea transportation to bring in communications equipment and construction rental equipment, and even air evacuation service to the nearest TriCare-approved medical facility.

Even arranging a simple peacekeeping exercise involves more than booking hotel rooms and meeting space, says Debbie Lampe, the Principal Assistant Responsible for Contracting for the Army Contracting Agency Southern Hemisphere. “I decided to participate in hands-on procurement for an exercise in Argentina in 2003. What an eye-opener! Everything from soldier theater clearance to the type of funding to use. It’s a lot of hard work.”

Many logisticians recall the pre-SPS days. “Under the old DOS system, it would take about 2.5 hours to get a purchase order into a vendor’s hands,” remembers Major Kenneth Buck, an Active Guard/Reserve soldier assigned to the 9th Regional Support Command in Honolulu, Hawaii. “Now my contracting officers have it down to about 10 minutes. It gives the vendor lead time to plan; your customer is a lot happier because he gets his product quicker. From my standpoint, it lets me manage the commodities so much better.”

Time Savings

Debbie Lampe’s team has relied on SPS for more than 2 years, both as a stand-alone version for the Directorate of Contracting at their base in Puerto Rico and as a mobile version—the Battle Ready Contingency Contracting System (BRCCS)—on their laptops. Each contracting officer operates independently in the field to manage a contract process from solicitation to award to closeout. He then returns to base, ready to hit the road again with his laptop computer on the next assignment.

Before BRCCS, KOs would spend hours after returning to their bases tediously rekeying information into the central database. To save time, they would cut corners by reducing 20 or so contract line item numbers to a single entry labeled “Lump Sum.” After all, the goal was to get credit, and this strategy met everyone’s needs. But logisticians lost valuable historical information in the process, which unintentionally created a deceiving picture that minimized the actual work involved.

“ From a procurement standpoint, the biggest challenge of a humanitarian mission is finding a company that has the capability to help you,” says Major Johnson. “For instance, in Southeast Asia, the general rule is ‘No problem.’ The next thing you know, you’ve just contracted a guy whose equipment is an ox and cart, and he doesn’t own anything. Accurate histories mean you build a database to steer clear of the subpar companies for the next project in that country.”

Because the SPS software offers a 25-percent reduction in labor time while lessening the need to keep separate manual spreadsheets, Debbie Lampe points out, historical information can be obtained at a price that few logisticians would refuse. Multiply that time savings by 10 to 15 missions a year across the 31 countries in her Central and South America territory, and Lampe’s enthusiasm for SPS is understandable.

A Joint Effort

Yet Lampe cites the SPS software’s onsite support and flexibility as its most valuable asset from a logistician’s standpoint. For example, U.S. Army South currently oversees two simultaneous humanitarian missions in Honduras, but staff vacancies mean Lampe must use one KO to cover both. “So he’ll start in one city in the morning, drive 6 hours to support the other mission, and SPS’s laptop capability means he stays in touch with the first job the entire time. It’s much better than a system that used to tie us to a central database.”

One of those Honduran projects involves a 179-day rotation between Air Force and Army KOs. SPS makes it possible to conduct a smooth mission while eliminating the need for a learning curve for every new face at the camp. “The KOs work the contracts with no hiccups,” Lampe observes. “That will be the critical key to the program’s success when it’s all said and done. Iraq is only the first of many future joint programs, where everybody has a piece of the pie when it comes to personnel. Each military branch can better manage their dollars, and it boils down to nothing more than a matter of a log-in and password.”

Lampe’s experiences highlight just how efficient the contingency world can be. For example, when several people are down range in an exercise, they can link laptops and tap into one primary database. By linking with one database, any assigned KO can create a contract without fretting later about whether or not he remembered to transfer that contract before packing for his next mission. “Say I’m in Nicaragua, and the Air Force sends two additional support personnel to get me through the initial setup,” Lampe describes. “They may bring their own laptops, but by linking to mine they don’t store anything. When they fly out in 2 weeks, I have everything and they took nothing. Yet they can work at the same time I am and do it without a holdup. SPS’s flexibility certainly opens the door to more intermittent support in the field.”

SPS also illustrates the message that Major General Terry E. Juskowiak, the commander of the Army Combined Arms Support Command at Fort Lee, Virginia, delivered to the Association of the United States Army meeting in October 2003: “Connectivity for logisticians on the battlefield is critical. Supporting information systems and communications must provide a ‘24/7’ sense and respond capability.” SPS’s performance on humanitarian assistance missions spells only good news for tomorrow’s maneuver sustainment and deployment.

Real Dollar Savings

Theoretically, SPS should cut the contracting workload so that fewer KOs are needed throughout the military. In reality, the sheer number of humanitarian projects around the globe negates the ability to reduce the manpower requirement, according to Lampe. “We’re also business advisors, so we also do market research and onsite inspections. SPS gives us time to concentrate on all of our responsibilities.”

A contingency mission’s requirements for immediate action often lead to the use of verbal agreements with contractors. With older systems, KOs needed to call a vendor and say, “Go ahead, the paperwork will follow.” Now, SPS means that if Buck’s team needs a generator right away, his KO can quickly produce the appropriate contract, fund the deal, shoot it to the vendor, and have the order on its way in 10 minutes without resorting to the more easily disputed verbal agreements. Buck adds, “And we went from 30 file cabinets full of paper records to zero with SPS.”

Major Johnson of USARPAC relies on SPS’s extensive information and mobility to ensure that he is paying market prices for the myriad supplies on the logisticians’ lists. By swapping databases with KOs previously stationed in a specific country, logisticians can research what they paid, for example, for bottled water on the last mission. “A new person can say, ‘Wait a minute. Over the last 3 years [the price of] water only changed by a couple of baht, so why are you trying to charge me a 30 baht markup?’” Johnson points out. Multiply that 30 baht across the cost of everything from sand to cranes, and the money begins to add up. It’s a real-life example of moving resources from the back office to the field, and America’s warfighters reap the benefits. “It can make a significant difference because you’ll always have a budget,” Johnson comments. “You’ll have to figure out where you stand and use competitive negotiation to get you back in that box.”

At the end of the day, it’s the ability to board an airplane on a moment’s notice and head to the theater that Debbie Lampe prizes. “We’re currently gearing up for a classified mission. That person [the KO] soon will grab the laptop, and we won’t see him for we don’t know how long. We’ll lose communication, but everything he does will be captured in one location and downloaded on his return. SPS is a perfect tool in [a] contingency.” ALOG

Colonel Jacob N. Haynes is the Program Manager for the Standard Procurement System. He has a B.S. degree from Winston Salem State University, an M.B.A. degree from Monmouth University, and a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Army War College. He is a graduate of the Transportation Officers Basic and Advanced Courses, the Army Command and General Staff College, the Defense Systems Management College, and the Program Management Course.