When military recruits first consider a career in the U.S. armed forces, the possibility of operating cool gadgets, state-of-the-art equipment and futuristic technologies often hovers before them as a chief attraction.
Ironically, a recruit’s initial contact with the military typically takes him or her backward in technological time. That’s because long before they can wear a uniform, all military personnel — no matter their service branch — must be qualified, evaluated and processed by the still largely manual legacy system of the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command.
USMEPCOM operates 65 military entrance processing stations (MEPS) for the Defense Department that oversee background reviews, aptitude tests and health checks for the 700,000 men and women who seek to join the Army, Air Force, Navy or Marine Corps each year.
“Basically, when you apply for a job in the U.S. military, you start with a whole bunch of paper, and you walk with a whole bunch of paper, as you go through our process,” says Air Force Col. Mariano Campos Jr., commander of USMEPCOM. “Even when we send our applicants off to their basic-training base for their respective service branch, we’re sending them off with a packet of paper.”
But all of that is about to change.
This summer, USMEPCOM will begin deploying the Virtual Interactive Processing System (VIPS), a modern, integrated, paperless, network-centric environment that will enable anytime, anywhere applicant processing.
“For the first time, we’ll have a system that will appeal to the younger generation that we’re trying to connect with,” Campos says. “We’re finally going to be catching up with them.”
Boundaries Be Gone
VIPS is at the heart of a larger effort to transform the accession process. The command wants to make it more responsive, flexible and efficient for everyone involved — from the recruiters and MEPS staff to the applicants themselves.
“Right now, what we have is very much a linear, stovepiped process, where you go to A then B then C in terms of what makes sense or what is cost-effective,” explains Army Col. Larry Larimer, director of strategic planning and transformation at USMEPCOM. What’s more, no actual processing takes place unless an applicant is physically present at a brick-and-mortar MEPS during its hours of operations.
“Under VIPS, all those boundaries will go away,” Larimer says. “Applicants will be able to initiate their own process in their home, on their computer, at midnight if they want, and the system will give them instructions to move the process forward, such as: ‘This is the information you’ll need to clarify when you see your recruiter,’ or ‘You’ll need to obtain your medical records up front on that knee surgery you had a few years back.’ ”
Because it will support virtual and near-real-time services, VIPS will also allow for more information collection and verification up front, which will help cull applicants who, for background or medical reasons, aren’t qualified for military service. The command estimates that this electronic preprocessing will decrease by more than half the number of applicants that it will actually evaluate and test at MEPS facilities.
The ability to verify data via VIPS will also reduce the number of times the remaining applicants will need to be driven by recruiters from their homes to MEPS locations. USMEPCOM officials expect that this key metric will drop from an average of 2.6 trips to just one.
“It might not sound like a big deal. But if that recruit lives five hours from the closest MEPS, that’s a lot of time lost if they don’t have the right documentation with them and they have to go back home to get it,” Campos notes. “With VIPS, they would not have to make a second trip because they didn’t have the right documentation with them.”
The impact will have a trickle-down effect on the services, particularly on recruiters, says Kevin Sullivan, director of IT for the Navy Recruiting Command.
Instead of e-mail, faxing and calling, he explains, Navy recruiters will be able to fully access VIPS via the Navy’s new Personalized Recruiting for Immediate and Delayed Enlistment Modernization system.
During initial interviews with applicants, for example, recruiters will be able to log on to their own systems using notebook or tablet PCs, access VIPS and almost instantly determine the accuracy of information provided by applicants, including Social Security numbers and residency status.
Eventually, recruiters will even be able to access medical information (with appropriate permission).
If a prospect has already applied to another service or taken the military entrance exam, Sullivan notes, the recruiter can prepopulate the application with that information rather than start from scratch. Or, if the recruiter wants to make an appointment for the prospect to travel to a MEPS facility for exams, it can be done right then and there, as opposed to faxing or calling in a request.
“We really think that VIPS will be huge for us in terms of driving down the number of transactions and windshield time a Navy recruiter spends to process an applicant,” Sullivan says. “And for the Navy, that will mean a much more efficient process, a much faster process, to move an applicant from a prospect to a sailor. That’s good for everyone.”
A New Reality
The VIPS vision was just that until this past fall. That’s when USMEPCOM awarded a systems integration contract, and the effort to finalize the infrastructure overhaul began in earnest.
Because of the extensive development of the blueprint for this modular system, officials at USMEPCOM have a strong sense of what the final VIPS will look like when build-out begins in the summer, IT Director and CIO Eddie McIntyre says. Officials expect the system to be fully operational by the end of fiscal 2013.
Until now, the command had been largely focused on an intensive, two-year business process re-engineering effort. “The reality at USMEPCOM is we’ve done business literally the same way since World War II,” Larimer says. “We knew just laying on a new technology that only makes doing old business a little bit faster wasn’t going to do anything to promote advancement in terms of the process.”
A new system, he added, needed to succeed not only in being more virtual and real-time, but also in ensuring that USMEPCOM could become more responsive to the business needs of the recruiting services. Everyone agreed, Larimar says, that meant enabling the services’ recruiters to prequalify 80 percent to 90 percent of their prospects before they ever traveled to a MEPS.
In technology terms, that translated to a complete overhaul in the way USMEPCOM exchanges data with other organizations and therefore in its IT infrastructure, McIntyre says.
“Currently, we rely almost totally on self-disclosed information that the applicant provides to us up front,” he explains. To validate that data, the command needs a way to easily and quickly compare it with records held by, for instance, the Social Security Administration, the U.S. Criminal Justice Information System, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and states’ vital statistics bureaus and motor vehicle administrations.
“We needed an extensive ability to exchange data with agencies where that data already exists,” McIntyre says. Today, some of these checks occur through batch-processing exchanges between the command and the Defense Manpower Data Center, which then conducts matches with the organizations that are home to the source data and returns the results to USMEPCOM. If an applicant transposes a few numbers or there’s an error during data entry, this circuitous information process must start all over.
A major task going forward will be assessing infrastructure resources and planning for necessary upgrades. “There is definitely going to be an impact on our network resources because of new functionality available in VIPS and its reach to a larger community of users,” McIntyre says.
Currently, the USMEPCOM network relies on a hub-and-spoke architecture based on frame-relay and ATM technology deployed in the 1990s and optimized only for data. The future network will be based on Multiprotocol Label Switching, a fully meshed architecture that will also support voice and video traffic.
The modernized environment will revamp the command’s large infrastructure, which currently relies on a mixed server environment that includes IBM hardware, an EMC storage area network and Oracle 10g databases. A service-oriented architecture — built on Oracle’s Business Process Management Suite, SOA Suite, WebLogic application server and upgraded 11g databases — will be at the core of the new system.
McIntyre says he expects VIPS to transform computing commandwide. At MEPS facilities, for example, personnel will rely on upgraded desktop and notebook PCs to access data and input information. They will also use medical devices that can automatically capture patient results such as blood pressure readings.
What’s more, any browser-capable device will be able to tap VIPS’ functionality. With the retooled infrastructure, USMEPCOM will rely on web services rather than legacy-oriented point solutions for data verification, McIntyre says.
Everything will be driven by streamlined business rules established during the re-engineering process, Larimer adds, and the benefits will be immediate.
“Right now, a significant number of people are discharged for conditions they knew about but failed to disclose and that only surfaced later during training,” he says. “The better the information we have up front on an individual, the better the assessment we can make about their ability to meet the services’ standards and whether the individual can make it through training.”
McIntyre says his team will secure the network in a variety of ways, including extensive use of data tagging, security labels and federated trust agreements with organizations that exchange data with the command. PKI-enabled and identity-based access controls, along with data transmission via the military’s encrypted network for unclassified data, will add an additional layer of protection.
“We have to strike a balance with security,” he says. “While we have to do those things necessary to effectively secure the network and its data, we can’t implement measures that will eliminate our ability to be virtual.”
A Future Model
The effort to build VIPS is not without its challenges. DOD, not USMEPCOM, is financing the system and therefore holds the purse strings, and there are cultural challenges in changing processes, particularly for MEPS employees.
USMEPCOM would be required to process 18,000 applicants each day should Congress or the president declare a national emergency requiring large-scale mobilization.
Even so, Campos and other command officials remain confident that VIPS will succeed and that it will ultimately be a boon for military recruiting. Recruits and MEPS employees will find the process less frustrating. The services will experience time and money savings by processing only those candidates who most likely will meet military quality standards. And in the event of a national emergency, USMEPCOM will be in a position to meet national mobilization requirements.
“I think it will make us an even more customer-centric organization because we’ll be so much more flexible and responsive to everyone,” Campos says. “Everyone involved will be happier.”
With its renewed capacity and capabilities, USMEPCOM also could end up helping other agencies streamline their recruiting efforts.
“It’s a bit visionary, but if we succeed with this model, we think other federal agencies could utilize our services,” Campos says. The FBI, the Transportation Security Agency, and Customs and Border Patrol all recruit and qualify candidates, he points out, and many of these agencies regularly receive applications from former military personnel, which means their information would already be in the USMEPCOM system.
“There’s the potential for a lot of efficiencies to be gained here,” Campos says. “Because really, processing is processing in the government. I think that what we’re able to develop here will give us the potential to literally cut across all boundaries of any agency out there.”