The Pentagon’s acquisition process has difficulties that can be mitigated by borrowing from tech startups. When it comes to doing business with the government, long lead times and high levels of regulations have plagued the defense industry for decades. Now there is an answer. The DoD is mimicking business accelerators such as Techstars and Y Combinator to instigate a “rapid reaction” demo day that can deliver technologies to warfighters in an expedited manner.
Accelerators in the civilian startup world house burgeoning companies across numerous technology verticals. After being incubated in an accelerator, usually for three months, a startup refines its technology offerings for would-be investors. This culminates in a day when the companies demonstrate their groundbreaking technology for the world to see.
An Air Force accelerator powered by Techstars featured a smorgasbord of defense innovation companies during its 2020 demo day. These startups provided a future glimpse into military modernization. Solutions abound, from AI assistants for engineering to machine intelligence for the industrial workforce to digital supply chains.
Now the Pentagon has its own demo day to expedite the procurement process, and it is solving acquisition problems in a manner that would make Silicon Valley proud. The DoD Rapid Reaction Technology Office is leading the way for greater speed to adoption and quickly cutting more red tape in acquisition.
It works like this. First, there is a problem. For example, when it comes to aviation spare parts, the DoD faces a crisis in readiness. A 2020 GAO report showed how dire the situation really is. It reviewed 46 types of aircraft across the service branches from FY 2011 to 2019 and found that only three met their annual mission capable goals.
The Air Force uses a just-in-time manufacturing model for aerospace spare parts. But the way the Air Force operates results in their having to pay more, and it risks not getting parts in time. The Air Force frequently relies on old parts that are not used widely and makes purchases years apart, in small batches, as needed. This may sound like a great approach, but it has serious downsides. Companies are forced to keep production lines open indefinitely, driving up costs and preventing the Air Force from meeting its spare parts needs. No responsible commercial parts manufacturer would keep a production line open with labor for years without any orders. A key part of this problem is that DoD does not effectively forecast their needs or communicate these needs to the industry in advance. Faced with higher prices and delivery delays, DoD and Congress impose regulations on industry to try to rein in costs. But these regulations do not solve the fundamental challenge that costs are driven by how the Air Force manages its spare parts and often result in driving companies out of the defense market. There is a better way.
The solution is machine intelligence that can instigate a system of predictive analytics to predict when a part is needed. This is where artificial intelligence comes in as an answer, and the Rapid Reaction Technology Office steps up to the plate. First, a startup applies to the program with a brief abstract that describes its technology to solve the aerospace parts problem. Then RRTO selects the most promising technology for its demo day. A hand-picked audience consisting of subject matter experts, technologists from across the DoD, and other government agencies gather for the pitch.
In two weeks after being selected, the startup gets a dry-run rehearsal on its demo from experts at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. The startup is told what to improve and what to work on to optimize the pitch.
Just two weeks later, the startup performs its technology demo to the audience convened by the RRTO. If there is interest, agencies can immediately follow up with the company. The follow-up phase only lasts a couple of weeks. Then the agency works with the startup to bring the technology to fruition. No Broad Agency Announcement or Request for Proposals are needed. In the example described above, a machine intelligence solution would potentially solve the spare parts problem. The startup and the Air Force would soon know if it has found the best partner to develop the technology.
So, the RRTO demo day consolidates a process that could take years with the current acquisition cycle and reduces it down to weeks. This achieves improved cost efficiencies to predict what the Air Force needs and when it needs it. It also facilitates better market research that mitigates the certification of the acquisition data for the Air Force.
The Army is getting into the act as well. The Army Applications Laboratory is streamlining the acquisition process for dual-use technologies from startups that are not traditional defense contractors. The startup first registers on the AAL website with its solution. Then the Army quickly determines if that technology solves an announced problem and if it qualifies to apply for a streamlined Small Business Innovation Research grant. Again, this shaves months, even years, off the acquisition timeline.
Sometimes the Army laboratory does a “reverse demo day.” The lab chooses a cohort of several companies that fit into its solutions rubric. It then takes the cohort to an Army installation and demonstrates the actual weapons systems that need an improvement. One example is the requirement for a robotic arm that can automatically load ordnance into the Paladin 155-mm howitzer. Personnel from startups get to see the Paladin fire its gun repeatedly at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. This shows the startup founders exactly what the weapons system requires and assists them with developing the technology further without long lead-times.
Demo days are the future of defense acquisition. The DoD Rapid Reaction Technology Office and the Army Applications Laboratory are borrowing from the civilian startup world, and they are seeing results. They are taking the best practices from tech accelerators such as Techstars and Y Combinator to speed up the acquisition timeline, cut down regulations, and allow startups to survive during the lengthy time from research and development to actual use for the warfighter. Defense demo days solve actionable problems and deliver new technologies from the civilian world to better protect the country.
Brent M. Eastwood, Ph.D., is the author of Humans, Machines, and Data: Future Trends in Warfare. He is a Political Scientist and Emerging Threats expert. He was Founder and CEO of an award-winning tech firm that predicted world events using machine learning and artificial intelligence. He served in the U.S. Senate as a legislative fellow and advised a senator on defense and foreign policy issues. Brent has taught at George Washington University and George Mason University. He is a former U.S. Army Infantry officer.