The New Administration Must Empower the Department of Defense to Wage Acquisition Warfare

We are designed for inefficiency at best, and failure at worst.

Photo by Donald Giannatti on Unsplash
  • Overly Complex processes — The Federal Acquisition Regulation, the principal set of rules for how to acquire goods and services by NASA, GSA, and the DoD stands at a towering 1,998 pages making it nearly impossible for commercial companies to understand how to navigate, and providing a massive barrier to entry — one often exploited to incumbents’ advantage. As should now be beyond debate, these processes no longer serve to ensure appropriate stewardship of taxpayer dollars nor efficiently and effectively deliver capability to the battlefield.
  • No Unity of Command — There is no clear leadership from DoD to commercial entities seeking to bring dual-use technologies to the government; instead there are myriad efforts such as AFWERX, the Army Applications Laboratory (AAL), the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN), NavalX. These organizations often don’t know what others are investing in, focusing on, or planning. This results in confusion from the market on where to go for initial entry to DoD, or to pitch specific capabilities. This not only makes it challenging for commercial companies to navigate (in addition to the FAR details), but risks ‘innovation fratricide’ that reflects poorly on the wider DoD innovation ecosystem and does reputational harm to these efforts among the startups and communities they are intended to attract.
  • Technical Roadblocks — The process for a commercial software company to be granted ‘Authority to Operate’ (ATO is the ability to deploy their software on DoD networks and hold DoD data, even at the unclassified level) is confusing at best. The reported timelines from commercial software providers ranging from months to even years and costs range into the hundreds of thousands — and sometimes up to millions — of dollars to achieve compliance. There are currently over 500 DoD SBIR Phase II companies (those who have shown promise, achieved fit with a customer, and are aligned to an operational priority — most of which have also already received some $750,000) who are awaiting an ATO to be able to test and deliver their solution on DoD networks.
  • Transition Barriers — There is a well documented lack of funding and acquisition pathways for commercial technology companies courted by DoD innovation entities to transition to programs of record and be scaled across the Department. Anduril Industries’ CRO Matt Steckman does a nice job highlighting the challenges and some recommendations in a recent Medium post here. The barriers to funding and processes for innovative technology pilots and prototypes to transition sends a clear message to commercial companies and investors: ‘it will not be easy, or predictable if you want to work with the DoD.’
  • Unbalanced Security — A legacy security framework of ‘compliant’ and ‘low risk’ (as defined by how things have always been done) no longer effectively capture or manage modern risks — namely cybersecurity, global supply chains, and adversarial capital. Failure to account for these risks has already resulted in high profile issues such as Solar Winds, mass cancellation of drone contracts, and continued challenges surrounding Chinese investment into dual use technology companies. These issues simultaneously fail to protect capability from being stolen by potential adversaries and force the U.S. to confront the very technologies it was funding for competitive advantage. And they do potentially lasting reputational damage to the DoD, as discussed above.
  • Slow, Inflexible Cadences — legacy approaches to capability development through traditional program offices — a recent GAO report shows programs taking over 10 years to deliver capabilities and still facing significant delays due to advancements in software during the development lifecycle — is no longer effective for addressing many requirements, particularly where speed and agility are required. They soak up huge portions of available resources without delivering capability, and when they finally do, they are almost guaranteed to be behind the current state of the art.

We cannot just throw more money at a broken system and expect it to deliver new results. We must change.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

There are clear steps to take to empower the Department of Defense to win Acquisition Warfare.

Photo by Jason Blackeye on Unsplash
  • Unify efforts of organizations such as AFWERX, AAL, DIU, NSIN, NavalX, Combatting Terrorism Technical Support Office, Rapid Capabilities & Critical Technologies Office, Remote Sensing Center, Rapid Capabilities Office and countless others.
  • Empower the workforce within these organizations with software platforms to enable advanced technology scouting, research, and vetting, while simultaneously promoting the sharing of knowledge across the different organizations through communities of action around topics and technologies of importance.
  • Communicate these roles and functions clearly to the commercial sector, to provide clarity to the founders, builders, and investors that the Department seeks to court.
  • Address the current challenges around ATO and FedRAMP through the establishment of a continuous ATO (cATO) process that allows for SBIR funded companies at Phase II, or beyond, to rapidly achieve accreditation to deploy software on DoD networks through a predictable, consistent, and transparent process.
  • Create a structured and rapidly executable pathway for this cATO to transfer to classified networks, allowing for implementation of SBIR and other commercially developed software to be leveraged on mission critical systems
  • Establish funding mechanisms for the time required to transition into programs of record. Current pathways and sources of funding result in companies getting stuck in the ‘valley of death’ after spending years on SBIR efforts due to funding requirements and process barriers. Tony DeMartino, the former Deputy Chief of Staff to the Secretary of Defense recently discussed related challenges here, and the fact remains that we continue to invest billions of dollars into promising technology pilots without clear mechanisms for them to advance into production, much less mature into a system or program of record. This pathway would provide increased predictability for the commercial technology developers while also putting pressure on stagnant programs of record to focus on innovation and growth versus stability and survival.
  • Increase connectivity between intelligence and acquisition professionals by implementing technology solutions to rapidly identify and thoroughly vet potential adversarial efforts to steal or impede technological development. Allow for sharing and flagging of potential issues by acquisition teams and intelligence organizations to set a foundation for Acquisition Threat Intelligence streams and further empower acquisition teams to understand and mitigate risks.
  • Train, equip, and empower technology portfolio managers to understand and manage the cybersecurity risks associated with companies and technologies under their purview by implementing software that enables rapid assessment and risk-scoring for core cybersecurity related issues.
  • Establish clarity on the Trusted Capital Marketplace (TCM), a long discussed and often teased concept that has yet to be fully realized, and remains confusing to the very commercial companies and technologists for which it is postured to support. The time has come to either operationalize and clearly articulate the role and functionality of TCM, or to kill it. Too many false starts will serve as another signal that the DoD is not ready to work with, nor does it understand, the venture community that is underwriting much of the technology development that the DoD wants to reap the benefits of — and risks further reputational damage in this regard.

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We build tools for acquisition warfare.

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Second Front Systems

Second Front Systems

We build tools for acquisition warfare.

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