Advancing Threats Necessitate New Approach to Defense Technology Acquisition

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Collaboration is one way to develop an edge over competitors.

The global ubiquity of technology means that U.S. military superiority is becoming more challenging to maintain. Players large and small have access to sophisticated technology that can quickly match the United States’ capabilities in many areas.

Remote monitoring technologies, battlefield communications hardware, network infiltration devices and tactical weaponry are among the groups of unprecedented tools that will continue to advance adversarial threats if the process for more rapidly identifying and implementing new capabilities does not change. Although adversarial warfighting innovations are becoming more commonplace in defense forces around the world, the Defense Department is expanding the use of highly effective collaborative methods to help bridge its technological gaps and advance its mission.

The Time Lag of Traditional Acquisition

The old way of doing business for the Pentagon—with large companies bidding on contracts that can take years to complete—simply cannot move quickly enough to meet the threats that the U.S. is facing today and will face into the future. Whereas many private-sector enterprises can simply vet and purchase tools as soon as they become available on the market, federal government agencies like Defense are not afforded the same luxury.

The timeline for traditional government contracts can vary significantly, but most would agree acquisition takes longer than they would prefer. According to the General Services Administration website, the process of preparing proposals alone can take “anywhere from a few months to over a year.” Once proposals are submitted, they require extensive review and negotiation of award value. Even when the contract is finally signed, it is required by law to undergo a protest period in which other interested parties can object to the award decision, kicking the can further down the road and widening the gap between the technologies that exist and those actually in use.

More creative methods that use collaboration between industry and the government to identify the best technologies to help solve challenges are gaining momentum, ranging from large defense contractors, small companies with great technologies, or researchers at academic institutions. One example of how the government is improving its acquisition through insight from industry leaders is through partnerships formed with research and prototype development consortiums to help determine the best path forward when considering a major technology acquisition or overhaul.

Consortium collaboration models provide the government with flexibility, speed and access to the most recognized leaders in industry and academia, who in turn provide consultative expertise to aid the government’s acquisitions. These structured research and development collaboration models break down regulatory barriers to acquisition and accelerate the commercialization of new, emerging and disruptive technologies not readily available to the federal marketplace, ultimately enabling innovation at the speed necessary to meet the high impact requirements of our national defense strategy.

Turning Best Practices Into Reality

In addition to partnering with industry thought leaders, Defense needs to find ways to actually incorporate new technologies while working through the government’s existing acquisition infrastructure.

This is why the collaboration model leveraging other transaction authority, or OTA, is such an attractive option. Because consortia members are already a part of the collaborative contract development process with its own governance and dispute resolution processes, OTAs enable the defense community to forego traditional approval and protest periods. This, in turn, enables the participants in a consortium model to accelerate the development of requirements and deliver the best solutions to modernize defense capabilities and technologies in real time—much faster than legacy processes.

The U.S. Air Force’s Director of IT Acquisition Process Development Maj. Gen. Sarah Zabel recently said, “This mechanism is just so much faster and so much more attuned to getting something quickly that we want today and not have to spend a couple years going through a protest, going through this huge process to get something we wanted two years ago.”

In the long run, Defense will need to continue to form strategic partnerships with institutions of higher learning and the private sector (both traditional and non-traditional providers) to better understand acquisition best practices and adequately posture itself against evolving threats with the latest technologies. For the difficulties at hand, however, enabling faster acquisitions with OTA collaborative consortia provides workable solutions to the Defense Department’s problems at hand and serves as one of the first steps in committing to a culture of lasting improvements to United States’ defense technology capabilities.

Bob Tuohy is the chief operating officer of Advanced Technology International.