The Army is all in on innovative startups, but it will likely rely on tried and true contractors to get the tech over the finish line, Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley told SXSW.
The Pentagon is increasingly embracing the startup community as means to expand its technological arsenal, but traditional defense contractors could still be the ones putting most of those new tools into practice, according to top military brass.
In August, the Army stood up the Futures Command, a four-star unit charged with overseeing the service’s decade long modernization effort. With a 500-person staff and an annual budget of $100 million, the group will work to build state-of-the-art weaponry, vehicles and communications networks.
Central to that mission is working with the small companies on the bleeding edge of artificial intelligence, virtual reality and other emerging technologies, said Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, director of the Army’s Futures and Concepts Center and deputy commander of the Futures Command.
“We want to be part of this ecosystem, and so we are embedding ourselves into it,” Wesley said Friday at SXSW, speaking just a few blocks from the Austin-based startup incubator where Army Futures set up shop. “[The startup community] is the group we most need to be engaging with.”
But while those companies might be pushing the limits of today’s tech, they often find themselves stymied by government’s “laborious” acquisition process, he said. As such, the Army will need help from its usual business partners to adopt those new tools, according to Wesley.
At less than a year old, the command has yet to fully transition any tech to commercial use, but Wesley outlined a few paths that process could take.
After the Army identifies a technology it wants to acquire, a larger contractor could immediately buy it off the startup and develop it for military use, he said. With particularly small companies, Wesley told Nextgov, “that is probably the most realistic [option].”
If the company doesn’t want to give up control, he said, they could further develop a prototype with help the Futures Command and eventually partner with a larger contractor who can help them scale the tech across the enterprise. The Army is open to exploring options where the company goes the distance itself, he said, but that strategy will require a thorough assessment of the company’s ability to grow.
“There are multiple variations of how we can integrate the ideas,” Wesley said, “but the most important thing though is getting the idea and finding a mechanism that the patent owner is good with.”