Defense One / Caitlin Kenney

Become Interoperable or Disappear, Former DOD Data Chief Tells Contractors

Defense companies will have to prioritize data interoperability to stay relevant in the industry, David Spirk said.

Major defense companies must adopt truly interoperable data standards, or they’ll soon find themselves obsolete, according to the Pentagon’s ex-data chief. 

“If you're not making yourself and your company capable of interoperating in an automated manner at mass, you're probably not going to find yourself at the table much more,” David Spirk, now a senior counselor at Palantir, said during Defense One’s Tech Summit on Thursday.

Spirk, who served as DOD's first Chief Data Officer, spoke as major defense companies look to merge or team with smaller tech companies to add emerging capabilities to their portfolios—and as the Pentagon struggles with consolidation, shrinking competition for small businesses, and attracting new companies into the defense industrial base. 

“Breaking into this space is not easy. And even when you do, it's a fight every day because there's various levels of prime,” he said, citing fluctuating revenues and various factors that can make it difficult for startups to describe to investors how the company is progressing. 

“Over the last year, I've seen more of the partnerships beginning to occur than I had previously sensed when I was in government. It feels like it's continuing to accelerate and pick up where we're starting to see some of that coming together,” Spirk said. 

The uptick is partly due to an increased demand signal from the Pentagon, which issued a set of data decrees in 2021. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks “said we're moving into an open data standard architecture,” he said. 

“I just get a sense that increasingly, we're seeing companies both have a sense of urgency with a pacing threat and also with an understanding that there are really, really awesome new capabilities that are being invented out there. And if they don't begin to partner and invest in those and bring them into the environment and help them, we might find ourselves with one or two less primes.”

Spirk and his fellow panelists noted how challenging it can be to break into the defense industrial base, and said there are major perks to having prime contractors partner, acquire, or invest in a startup. 

Biz Peabody, Shield AI’s chief of staff, said defense tech companies want to get their products onto the field—and teaming with big companies can do that. 

“Our Kratos partnership, which we just announced this morning to integrate our AI pilot onto their Valkyrie, which is a group five [unmanned aircraft system]…that is really exciting,” Peabody said. “Because I think at the end of the day, having a product and being able to deploy that product is the name of the game.”

Tony Frazier, Maxar’s executive vice president and general manager for public sector earth intelligence, agreed with Peabody, noting that navigating the Defense Department’s acquisition process can be tricky, and smaller companies can collaborate with the primes “to show how we can get after a requirement more quickly.”

The space technology company has been supporting the Army's Project Convergence, which started in 2020 “and as part of that, there's been a lot of desire to be able to take commercial space and integrate that into a theater ground system,” he said, naming as an example the service’s TITAN initiative, which has multiple prime contractors signed on to perform different tasks.

“I think we're seeing that as a broader trend, whether it's for how we bring innovation into the modeling training simulation world—so working with the primes that are incumbents there—having our data integrated into platforms for assured [positioning, navigation and timing]. In order to really solve the problem, we got to work better together.”

John Serafini, HawkEye 360’s CEO, said having prime contractors as strategic investors added value throughout the company’s growth, such as providing access to secure spaces and building relationships on Capitol Hill. 

“Investment, particularly in the past four years where the defense industrial base has recognized a lot of value in having their own venture funds or partnering with great venture funds to get access to young innovation, that's all been very positive,” he said.