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National Defense Strategy Commission Calls for More Rapid Prototyping and New Acquisition Programs

Published: November 28, 2018

Federal Market AnalysisAcquisition ReformDEFENSEInformation TechnologyPolicy and LegislationResearch and Development

Will a new report from a congressionally-created commission prompt changes in defense technology acquisition?

A week or so before Thanksgiving, the congressionally-created National Defense Strategy Commission published a report entitled “Providing for the Common Defense.” The report offered a series of recommendations for the Department of Defense in the face of new great power competition from China and Russia. Headlines focused on the report’s dire predictions about entitlement spending and interest payments eventually crowding out defense spending, but the authors of the report also made recommendations on DOD’s technology investment that could lead to some changes if they are enacted.

Protecting The Defense Industrial Base

Noting that “since enactment of the Budget Control Act in 2011, the United States has lost roughly 17,000 prime defense vendors [and an estimated 60,000 factories] because of a lack of sufficient and predictable funding for defense,” the NDSC goes on to recommend that “the United States must better protect and strengthen its own National Security Innovation Base.” The report offers no suggestions how to go about achieving this, but one could imagine programs coming out of DOD to foster start-up firms like the Intelligence Community did with In-Q-Tel. These programs might even extend to spin-off businesses by established contractors, since they already know how to do business with the DOD. The larger point made in the report is that the DOD needs advanced commercial capabilities to keep up with its adversaries. This means something must be done, either by the department or by Congress, to support and nurture a vibrant defense industrial base.

Introducing Commercial Technology

Recommending that the “DOD should broaden its efforts to find and incorporate new technologies developed by the private sector,” the authors note the research and development work going on around the DOD, including the growing use of prototyping. Congress may occasionally express reservations about extending Other Transaction Authority to DOD for technology acquisitions, but the NDSC recommends even faster incorporation of commercial technologies into defense operations, which could relieve some congressional concerns. Given that a congressionally-created commission just recommended the DOD continue, and even expand, prototyping, industry should probably expect DOD’s use of OTA to grow even further. This makes it important for vendors to become involved in the business consortia responding to DOD white papers.

New Acquisition Methods

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to industry, the report’s authors recommend that DOD “should explore a new, narrowly tailored category of acquisition pilot programs that would push the boundaries on new technologies.” Pilot programs would need to be established using waivers of Nunn-McCurdy acquisition rules and by the specific creation of targeted acquisition programs. The report does not detail what these acquisition programs could be, but some of the target areas could have to do with cloud computing, cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence/machine learning, and unmanned vehicles. If DOD takes the suggestion and rolls out new acquisition pilot programs for emerging technologies then vendors will need to remain alert for sources sought notices and white paper calls. Rapidly conducted acquisitions of commercially-available technology would be the most important aspects of these new pilot programs.