Fast-Paced Technologies Passing by Military's Acquisition Culture

Ian, an Atlas robot with IHMC Robotics, cut a hole in a wall in a DARPA robotics competition. (DoD photo)
Ian, an Atlas robot with IHMC Robotics, cut a hole in a wall in a DARPA robotics competition. (DoD photo)

U.S. military leadership has known the Pentagon is falling quickly behind the technological curve and opening itself to new and developing threats, but military brass still don't know how to fix it.

Fingers are often pointed at the military's acquisition system that has failed to adapt to the increasingly fast pace of innovation and business development. Multiple attempts by military leaders and Congress have failed to make the system more agile or efficient.

In fact, company officials in important fields such as cyber security and robotics told they have no interest in working with the Pentagon because it would limit their opportunities in the commercial market.

Google took advantage of missed Defense Department opportunities last year when the search engine giant bought promising robotics companies working with the Pentagon. Boston Dynamics is one that had developed drone prototypes designed to help troops carry equipment on patrol and see inside suspicious buildings.

Former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel outlined many of these shortcomings in an initiative unveiled last November called the Pentagon's "Offset Strategy." Hagel wrote that the U.S. "dominance in key warfighting domains is eroding" in the memorandum announcing the strategy.

"We need to continue to further examine our business practices and find ways to be more efficient and effective through external benchmarking and focused internal reviews," Hagel wrote.

On Wednesday, the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee introduced a bill called the Agile Acquisition to Retain Technological Edge Act. The legislation seeks to improve the defense acquisition work force, offer more flexibility for defense contracts, and reduce weapons cancellation risks

"I hope that by streamlining the process, improving accountability, and eliminating outdated regulations, we can start to get some of that edge back. While this bill won't fix all that is broken, it is a start," said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the HASC chairman.

Along with Congress, groups inside and outside the military are trying to tackle the problem.

Christopher Zember, director of the Defense Department's Information Analysis Center (IAC), wants to use his organization as a test bed for a program that could have major implications on changes to the way the Pentagon buys weapons.

Pentagon loses its edge

The military along with the defense industrial complex has fallen behind the pace of innovation in Silicon Valley and the greater global research and development marketplace, Zember said. He warned that technology proliferation and rapid development cycles allow U.S. enemies to gain high-tech weapons for much less investment than previously required.

The Pentagon relied on large capital investments, lengthy development cycles and strategic forecasting to gain a technological edge after World War II, Zember wrote with Adam Jay Harrison and Jawad Rachami in a piece for the Georgetown Security Studies Review.

Now, firms such as Google, Apple and Microsoft grossly outspend defense companies like Lockheed Martin and Boeing on research and development programs. In 2013, the five largest U.S. defense industrial companies combined spent $4.1 billion on R&D projects. In that same year, Google spent $8 billion and Microsoft spent $10.4 billion, according to data collected by Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha Partners.

Zember said he recognizes the need for the Pentagon to better tap into the technology that has been yielded by those investments. He started a program at IAC called Technology Domain Awareness that he said could have ramifications, if successful, for the entire Pentagon.

One of the program's initiatives, called Project Vulcan, matches special operators and Pentagon acquisition officials with counterparts in the commercial and academic world, including researchers, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs. Project Vulcan is being overseen by officials in the U.S. Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center (SORDAC) and the National Defense University.

The goal is to offer a window into the challenges the special operations community faces to commercial partners, followed by a discussion of possible solutions. Zember said a major challenge he sees in the Defense Department's attempt to build weapons is the sharing of information about problems and solutions across services.

"We want to wind back the clock and engage people from the problem level," he said.

Problems are the currency of the technology development and start-up communities, said retired Army Col. Peter Newell, who served as the head of one of the Army's most agile acquisition arms, the Rapid Equipping Force, from 2010 and 2013. Newell is now a managing partner at BMNT Partners, a consultant firm in Silicon Valley, and is working with Zember and the IAC to improve DoD acquisition.

Newell saw firsthand many of the struggles the military has when developing the right technology for troops. He said the key to improving the military acquisition of technology is eliminating space between users and developers.

Under his leadership, the Army deployed mobile labs with engineers and 3-D printers to Afghanistan, where soldiers would describe the problems they faced in the field and engineers would develop solutions on site.

Newell said Pentagon officials need to travel to Silicon Valley to get a better grasp of the community's culture if the military wants to take advantage of the innovation occurring in the region. Posting opportunities on government acquisition sites such as and hoping for those developers to reach out to the Pentagon will not work, he said.

Mike Geertsen worked for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency for four years after spending 12 years at Microsoft. He agreed with Newell, although he said there is the potential to build a larger technology development community in the D.C. region.

Many business leaders and developers in fields such as autonomy, robotics and advanced engineering hardly know about opportunities working with the military, Geertsen said. For the few who do, working with the Pentagon rarely makes sense financially, he said.

Funding comes too slowly for start-ups and tech firms, causing the military to risk missing market opportunities waiting for the government to process the legally mandated acquisition steps, Geertsen explained.

The founders of Drone Shield, a company that built a system that provides alerts for incoming aerial drones, said working under a Pentagon contract is unattractive for the reasons Geertsen laid out. The system could be useful to military units stationed at combat outposts; however, Brian Hearing, a co-founder of DroneShield, said his company would miss out on too many commercial opportunities if it pursued an Army contract.

Culture and Contracting

Geertsen boiled the Pentagon's problem down to two main issues: culture and contracting.

He explained that the culture gap goes beyond the alphabet soup of abbreviations that troops and Pentagon officials use in their daily lexicon. He said he had to get used to the different pace of operations working with the government and the mindset of obligating funding versus shipping a product.

The military needs to find ambassadors to shrink the chasm between those two cultures, Geertsen said. The ambassadors would come from commercial industry, and recruit or help tech firms and innovators work within the Pentagon's acquisition system.

One such ambassador could be TandemNSI.

Jonathan Aberman launched TandemNSI last year and has hosted numerous events in the D.C. region that bring together entrepreneurs and commercial technology development leaders with national security officials. Aberman also serves as the managing director of a venture capital fund, Amplifier Ventures.

Geertsen is assisting TandemNSI on putting together a concept where the organization would serve as a talent scout for the Pentagon. TandemNSI would help find the tech companies developing solutions that would fit with DoD innovation requirements and and work with existing agile contract models to make working with the DOD more engaging for nontraditional sources.

Entrepreneurs and start-ups cluster around each other, Aberman said. The military needs people from this world recruiting these innovators to work on Pentagon challenges. Until it does, some of the most innovative companies will continue to ignore the military and the opportunities, Aberman said.

"If national security agencies want to attract non-traditional innovators, if has to become non-traditional in how they attract them," Aberman said.

He cited the Cyber Fast Track Program as an example where the Pentagon made progress. The temporary program allowed DARPA to work with a large group of cyber innovators over a short period of time with a relatively small amount of money, Aberman said.

Zember and Aberman agreed the Pentagon must work with Congress to develop a more business-friendly contracting system.

“There’s clearly a need for contract reform and a willingness to use some existing methods in new ways,” Aberman said.

Zember said federal acquisition regulations have some flexibility built in to allow program managers to create opportunities for smaller businesses. However, for the most part, it's a "cookie-cutter approach" that makes it difficult to adapt to the fast moving pace of technology fields.

Aberman said the Pentagon needs to figure out a way to get money to companies faster, or the most innovative groups will take their products elsewhere.

"We believe that growing this bottoms-up approach that deals tangibly with the last-mile issues of culture and contracts is essential for the DoD to achieve its offset strategy and innovation base objectives," Aberman said.

-- Michael Hoffman can be reached at

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