The defense industry is never shy about urging the Pentagon to move faster when buying everything from equipment to weapons. But this week, two top Pentagon acquisition officials turned the tables, saying that defense firms are moving too slowly themselves.
First came James Smith, the acquisition executive for U.S. Special Operations Command.
“As I get all sorts of great authorities from Congress and from [the Office of the Secretary of Defense] to move faster, we’re seeing some of our industry partners that are not moving as fast,” Smith said Wednesday at the National Defense Industrial Association SO/LIC conference. “If I’m going to move faster, I need you to move faster as well.”
He alluded to bureaucratic delays at larger firms.
“Some of you in the room, I’m moving faster than you are, as you tell me ‘Yeah, I gotta get this through my contracting layers,’” he said. “And I’m not talking to the smalls. We’ll just leave it at that. You gotta help me move faster. This next generation of acquisition is going to be all about speed.”
SOCOM acquisition moves quickly because it’s typically working to field equipment urgently needed by troops on the battlefield. But these days, it seems acquisition officials everywhere are working to speed up the buying process — and the already speedy SOCOM wants to move even faster.
Also weighing in on the subject: Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch, the U.S. Air Force military deputy for acquisition. (Bunch has been nominated to get his fourth star and lead Air Force Materiel Command.)
“When we talk about faster and smarter, and we talk about our bureaucracy, we talk about what we’re doing to try to streamline things, I think you probably have a little of your own bureaucracy in the way you’ve done business as well,” Bunch said Feb. 1 at an Air Force Association breakfast. “ I was always told the grass is greener on the other side and my response to that is, quit spending so much time looking over the fence. Why don’t you take care of your own garden and be a little bit better gardener and get your grass a little greener.”
Bunch continued: “We’re working on what we can do internal to our bureaucracy. I’m sure you are doing the same because we’ve all gotta work together if we’re going to make this happen so that we’re getting capabilities out there quicker.”
Seems like we have a trend brewing. Let’s see if and how industry responds.
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Expect 2020 Budget Proposal on March 12
That’s what Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., said Thursday morning at an Amphibious Warship Industrial Base Coalition event on Capitol Hill. “What we’re hearing from [the White House Office of Management and Budget] is we’re not going to get the president’s budget until March 12,” he said. “That’s about seven weeks later than the normal regular order.” Usually the president’s budget proposal is sent to lawmakers the first Tuesday in February, but it has been delayed by the partial government shutdown in December and January. (Kudos to Politico, which reported the budget would be released the week of March 11, and National Defense Magazine, which reported the March 12 release date on Monday.)
SOCOM’s Shopping List
After nearly 18 years of counterterrorism ops in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and beyond, U.S. Special Operations Command is looking toward a future that also includes the great power competition with Russia and China described in the National Defense Strategy.
“In a near-peer environment, big platforms are going to have tough go at it, but a small team could very well be the survivable element that can influence the battle space for our nation,” SOCOM acquisition executive James Smith said Wednesday. “So how do you make those small teams more lethal?”
Here’s the stuff SOCOM is looking to buy as it re-tools for great power competition:
- Next-Generation Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance: SOCOM has long relied on the MQ-9 Reaper and similar drones to spot and strike targets, but these types of aircraft “will not be a feasible solution very soon in the future,” Smith said, apparently alluding to the proliferation of advanced surface-to-air missiles. “How do we find and fix [targets], if we can’t rely on a platform like an MQ-9?” Now, SOCOM is looking for ways to find bad guys through social media and other digital means, as well as using satellites in space and smaller, swarming drones.
- Next-Generation Mobility: The command is still buying new C-130Js transports and gunships and Chinook helicopters. “For our near future, we‘re still invested in the platforms we have,” Smith said. “So, how do we make those platforms more survivable going into the future?” Among the upgrades being sought: ways to navigate without GPS and lower the detectability of these large aircraft.”
- Precision Fires and Effects: Specifically, SOCOM is looking for a loitering, precision munition. “There’s not a great industry base right now CONUS for this capability. We’re working with some other partners,” Smith said. “We’re very interested in a missile, preferably man-packable, but if it can be employed on a vehicle … or a small watercraft in support of our SEALs, that’s what we’re looking for.” SOCOM will conduct an experiment with this type of tech in May, he said.
- Hyper-Enabled Operations: “We’re really talking about the cognitive space. We’re really talking about, how do I get information to the edge, to the individual or small team that is tailored for that individual’s mission,” Smith said. “So what is the data layer? What is the presentation layer? What is the computation layer?” He mentioned having “a lot of computing power at the edge and then the ability to back to the cloud to get greater depth, or report on the pothole that just showed up.” He also talked about troops on the battlefield getting real-time intelligence from social media and other intelligence sources.
- Networks and Data: “I will tell you that the culture of U.S. SOCOM has shifted dramatically over the last 12 months,” Smith said. He noted that Lisa Costa, the command’s chief information officer, has advanced degrees in mathematics and computer science. “Now our conversation as we sit around the staff table is much less about materiel solutions, and much more about the information domain,” he said. “How do we develop the architecture, how do we develop the protocols for the data so that we’ve got a much richer data layer to pull from to get information…to the enterprise.”
Oh, and SOCOM wants to own its data: Smith was pretty blunt about not wanting to be beholden to a third party for access to SOCOM information. “I want to own the data, I want to have access to the data, data is the new oil and if we’re generating data off one of our products, I want it,” he said. He stressed that he is not looking for design data rights, data being generated by platforms, like small drones. “I don’t think I’m talking about necessarily [intellectual property], I’m talking about the data that flows in and out of your box,” he said. “You can give me a black box and I don’t necessarily need to know what’s going on inside that black box,” he said. “I owe you the data architecture that your black box can plug into, but I do want to have access to every single bit of data that goes in or out of that box at the interface.” But defense companies have not wanted to give that data up so easily.
GE Scores Helicopter Engine Deal
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Army to Buy Iron Dome
The U.S. Army will buy a “limited number” of Iron Dome missile defense systems to “fill its short-term need for an interim Indirect Fire Protection Capability.” The system, which has been used by Israel to shoot down incoming missiles “will be assessed and experimented as a system that is currently available to protect deployed U.S. military service members against a wide variety of indirect fire threats and aerial threats,” Col. Patrick Seiber, an Army Futures Command spokesman, said in an emailed statement.
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