Speeding innovative tech to the warfighter

Whether it’s referred to as speeding up the acquisition process, speeding up the bureaucracy, or eliminating red tape, it all comes down to the same point – the Department of Defense (DoD) needs to pick up the pace when it comes to getting technology innovation into the hands of warfighters.

Too often young sailors, Marines, soldiers, and airmen find that their families’ cell phones have more tech than what they’re issued prior to a mission.

About a decade ago I asked a friend, a retired Green Beret, if he had ever been to the Special Operations Forces International Conference (SOFIC), which I was attending at the time. I was curious about what he thought of the tech he may have seen there. He told me to have fun and enjoy the gadgets, but that he had never been to that show and that it would be rare if anything I saw there ever made it into the field and made it quickly.

The various services are aware of the glacial pace of tech adoption and have in recent years made inroads to get technology to the troops more quickly through various rapid acquisition programs dating back to the Obama administration.

Open architecture initiatives such as the Sensor Open Systems Architecture (SOSA) and the Future Airborne Capability Environment (FACE) are examples of not only the DoD partnering better with industry to drive innovation, but also a spirit of cooperation among the services – Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force – to work together so these initiatives can work across platforms and domains regardless of service. However, more still needs to be done.

What you see is a certain amount of inertia in acquisition policy,” Ken Peterman, President of Viasat’s Gover ment Systems division, told me in a Q & A earlier this year. (See: https://bit.ly/2Ocngfm] “For 50 to 60 years the government has been an inventor of technology. It doesn’t know how to buy a turnkey service. Its model is based on breaking down an ecosystem into parts such as waveforms, modems, etc. This encourages long developmental cycles and higher costs. By leveraging commercial solutions, the government is able to do the opposite; because by purchasing a service the government can access a complete, functioning system all at the same time, with no risk and no delays.

“Our nation’s warfighters deserve to have the best technology available when they deploy,” he added. “Early adoption of these cutting-edge, commercially driven technologies can help solve warfighter problems now.”

One way the services accomplish this is with demonstrations such as a U.S. Navy activity, titled Advanced Naval Technology Exercise (ANTX) 2018, Human Machine Interaction (HMI-18), held at the end of summer 2018 in Newport, Rhode Island. According to Navy officials at the ceremony, the Navy is seeking innovative solutions in areas such as hypersonic wepaons, directed energy, machine learning, quantum science, microelectronics, and more. The demonstration was preceded by the Defense Innovation Days conference/exhibition, run by the Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance (SENEDIA).

During the conference and ANTX opening ceremony, speakers and exhibitors from the Navy, MIT, the U.S. Small Business Administration, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, Mercury Systems, TE Connectivity, Evans Capacitor, and more discussed how the DoD can speed technology to the warfighter.

According to the Navy, ANTX provides a low-risk environment in which scientists and engineers may evaluate their technological innovations at the research and development (R&D) level before they become operational. It also provides a feedback loop for the Navy requirements community and industry, ­academia, and Warfare Center R&D.

One way the DoD enables such tech innovation is through Other Transaction Authority (OTA) agreements. These arrangements are designed to get solutions to the warfighter as fast as possible, said Thomas Carroll, OTA Director, Naval Undersea Warfare Center Newport Division, during his presentation at the ANTX opening ceremony. OTAs also promote transparency and open cooperation between government and industry, he added.

Work at the ANTX demonstrations may also result in Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (CRADAs), which enable researchers to work with nonfederal partners.

During an industry panel, some leaders spoke bluntly, saying that although the demonstrations are nice, more needs to be done. Industry appreciates the opportunities enabled by events like ANTX, but “we’d like to see more money and more CRADAs come out of the demonstrations,” said Thomas Reynolds, business development manager, defense, for Hydroid. He added that there is also value in telling engineers “no thanks,” because it provides direction on what not to work on, so “we can spend our money more wisely.”

Reynolds also called on the Navy to push for more common architectures and common interfaces, enabling more commonality, which would go a long way toward fulfilling the goals of technology demonstrations like this one.

Well said.