To keep pace, military targets rapid prototyping and faster acquisition

Officials have expressed exasperation over the bulky acquisition process, which does not scale at “cyber speed.”

Agility and innovation are not words typically associated with acquisition in the defense community. For decades, the Defense Department’s acquisition processes have been derided by many as bulky, ineffective and too bureaucratic. Internal measures such as the Better Buying Power initiative as well as external plans including reform proposals from Congress have sought to improve upon the cumbersome process. In the digital age, however, leaders and warfighters alike are coming to grips with the notion that reforms take a significant amount of time while the pace that adversaries move in cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum require faster deployment of tools and solutions to the operational field.

For one Navy official, acquisition should be more like jazz music. “When I think about innovation, I think about jazz musicians,” Elliott Branch, of the office of the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, said recently. Musicians understand how the 12 notes that make up a scale are put together; they know what the rules are, when to break the rules and the effect that breaking these rules will have.

The Navy, he said, has created too many rules that add complexity to the buying process but don’t necessarily lead to the right solutions.

“The innovation I want to chase is not the innovation of process, it’s the innovation of the technology,” Branch, who is deputy assistant secretary for acquisitions and procurement, said during a June 8 panel discussion at the Acquire Show in Washington, D.C. The Navy must simplify and strip requirements to bare essentials, he said, and must think of product innovation as opposed to process innovation, especially when it comes to data center consolidation and mobility, which will drive decisions in acquisition for years to come. 

For others, DOD should eliminate the requirements-based approach and instead replace it with a needs-based approach. The process “is absolutely broken. What we need to do is, number one, we’ve got to move away from purely requirements-driven to needs-driven,” David Mihelcic, CTO for the Defense Information Systems Agency, said at an AFCEA hosted breakfast June 15. “So if we can then buy a technology and determine that there is an unfulfilled need whether or not that’s a documented requirement … we need to be able to move that quickly in acquisition.”

Prototyping and centers with sandboxes for testing devices and capabilities are also growing within the military. The Naval Undersea Warfare Center’s Rapid Innovation Center in Newport, R.I., has become a hub for testing new technologies and ideas. It would be useful to have a sandbox that’s cyber-safe and separate from the rest of the warfare center, innovation lead at the Rapid Innovation Center, Steve O’Grady told Defense Systems in an interview regarding the notion behind the center’s creation. O’Grady said the center would provide a haven for people to go play and track everything that goes in and everything that goes out, as to not subject the warfare center to vulnerabilities.

The center contributes in rapid prototyping and similar concepts, although getting devices and new technologies into the hands of warfighters rapidly is “probably our biggest challenge,” O’Grady said. Essentially, through contests such as hack-a-thons, the personnel at the center come up with an idea or a solution to complex problems that are sent to directorates with the necessary expertise and capability to produce and operationalize it. The facility can also be used by teams across the Navy to think out of the box and safely test devices without risking judgment or exposing vulnerabilities to systems.

The rebooted Defense Innovation Unit, Experimental, or DIUx, the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost that was recently placed under new leadership, can play a similar role. According to Mihelcic, DIUx’s new director, Raj Shah has outlined a concept where services and directorates will “come to them with a need, we’ll bring some money, they might match our money, they’ll do a very abbreviated announcement of what they’re interested in…do an operational evaluation [on products], potential deployment in the real-world network, figure out what works best and at the end of it have the documentation that’s going to allow us to do a follow on contract,” he said. 

The Air Force has developed a “proving ground” for cyber tools serving as a quasi-rapid prototyping and testing facility. “The Cyber Proving Ground’s focus is to really partner, so we have some organic capabilities to develop unique tools,” outgoing commander of the 24th Air Force, Maj. Gen. Burke “Ed” Wilson, said in April. “What we’re seeing is in our defensive action – and some of our potentially offensive actions, our command and control, situational awareness, some other lines of effort – is the need to be able to field very rapidly applications, capabilities … that actually we can put in our operators’ hands very aggressively, very quickly.” The proving ground will allow forces and the acquisition force to assess tools from an operational perspective, test them and decide if it can be rolled into operations. If a tool isn’t ready for primetime, it will be sent back for modification. 

The Air Force is not alone in its desire to rapidly test capabilities and get them into the hands of warfighters. The Navy’s new N99 directorate for unmanned systems’ rapid prototyping portfolio could involve a number of outcomes; take a concept or platform and put it in the fleet in an early operational capability to see what the fleet likes about it and maybe go to a program of record at a later date. If the platform is not ready to be fielded, it goes back to the science and technology community; if the fleet likes it, it will move on to a program of record. 

Branch, the deputy assistant secretary for acquisitions and procurement for the Navy, said the service is working with the N99 to identify barriers and determine how to accelerate rapid prototyping, but said he doesn’t necessarily view this as a model across the force. “We are engaged in a ‘go faster’ strategy,” he said. Branch also mentioned they are looking into Other Transaction Authority agreements, which operate outside the usual acquisition methods, providing cost-sharing with vendors, with the goal of shortening the capability-development cycle and speed the transition of prototypes to the government, something the Army, for example, has awarded contracts under related to Cyber Protection Teams that defend the department’s networks.     

The pace of threats and attacks in the digital age occurs at unprecedented speeds. Many, including DOD CIO Terry Halvorsen, humans cannot possibly respond in real time to attacks that take place at so-called “cyber speed.” The importance of acquisition reforms and rapid prototyping are exemplified by a paper written by Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of Defense for Policy and CEO of the Center for a New American Security, and Lt. Col. Robert Lyons III, senior military Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in the Strategic Studies Quarterly journal on sustaining the Military’s Technology Edge. Among 10 recommendations offered, five are devoted to some degree of acquisition reform.