Counterterrorism Rapid Acquisition Group Touts its Success
Photo: Defense Dept.
“Just because you asked your acquisition force to work faster doesn’t make you a rapid acquisition group. It just means you told your staff to work faster,” Robert Newberry, director of the Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office said on the sidelines of his organization’s annual briefing to industry at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.
Once a year, hundreds of representatives from businesses large and small, academia and anyone else who wants to tackle some tough technological problems comes to the briefing in hopes of snagging CTTSO contracts typically worth anywhere from $500,000 to $1 million — sometimes more, sometimes less.
In return, CTTSO expects products to be delivered 12 to 24 months after contract award. The office has been doing rapid acquisition since 1999. It is charged with filling technology gaps needed to “combat terrorism,” as its name says. It serves a dizzying array of customers — anyone in the Defense Department, federal law enforcement or civilian agencies, and state and local first responders whose mission is preventing or responding to terrorist acts.
Doing rapid acquisition is in the organization’s DNA. That’s why Newberry says organizations bound to the traditional procurement rules fail when trying to speed up processes. Simply telling someone to work faster won’t result in quicker development timelines, he added.
The CTTSO has a tried and true method of doing rapid acquisition. First, the technical support working group researches and validates requirements from the communities it serves. Sometimes requests come from the field. The Air Force, for example, asked for help developing a counter-small unmanned aerial vehicle system to protect its bases.
Once a year in the fall, the office has an advanced planning briefing for industry where it reviews that year’s requirements. There are 10 categories: advanced analytic capabilities; chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosives; improvised device defeat/explosive countermeasures; forensic science; irregular warfare/evolving threats; personnel protection; physical security; surveillance, collection and operations support; tactical operations support and training support.
Potential contractors at the briefing have an opportunity to speak directly with program managers to ask questions and provide feedback on the requirements. After the first of the year, contractors submit their ideas on a one-page paper. Those who spark CTTSO’s interest are then asked to write a longer white paper on their idea. If they are selected, then contract negotiations begin.
Newberry’s base budget is about $71 million per year, but that normally receives some congressional plus-ups, also known as earmarks, he said. Lately, Congress has been adding some $40 million for counter-tunnel technology to be used on a matching basis with Israel.
“The military didn’t think much of tunnels being a threat but once they got into Iraq and doing counter-ISIS, they found out they were using tunnels, too,” he said. The main customers are the Department of Homeland Security agencies who are looking for drug smuggling tunnels under the Southwest border, he added.
As for the counter-small UAS problem, that is both evolving and complex, he said. The first requirements were for base security and the solutions were static. Then the military wanted something portable that could be carried by two people. Now, it wants on-the-move protection for vehicles. That is a big challenge as it requires a radar, electro-optic and infrared sensors discriminating objects all while moving at 40 miles per hour. And then the system must stop the enemy UAV. “It takes a little technology,” he said.
Domestic agencies want the same capability, but they want non-kinetic solutions to stopping the aircraft. In a warzone, it’s OK to shoot them down, but that doesn’t work stateside because of fears of collateral damage, he said.
“I think at some point in the next couple years we will get out of that [counter-UAS] business because now it is becoming DoD centric,” Newberry said.
Detecting and defeating the terrorists’ weapon of choice — explosives — is one of the CTTSO’s long-term issues. Some of the problems it needs to solve are perennial. For example, vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices. Today’s robots are too small to peer inside large vehicles such as trucks. The office is looking for something that could perhaps bore into a roof and let a bomb disposal technician remotely peer inside.
Technicians have also asked for lightweight bomb suits that offer some, but not complete protection, he said. There are circumstances where they have to take off their protective gear, for example, when they have to crawl into tight spaces. A suit that protects their vitals but might sacrifice their extremities is what they are requesting, he said. That might seem like grim calculus, but “right now, they will take the bomb suit off so they have nothing. And something is better than nothing. Would they do it all they time? No. But they have that option.”
Once the contract is completed, the developer must bridge the so-called “valley of death” — the term for new products that don’t find a market or buyer, then wither and die.
Newberry said some of the technologies CTTSO funds are “one-offs,” such as software that is needed for a specific task and not meant for a wider market.
He also pointed to two success stories: ELTA North America, maker of the man-portable aerial radar system used for counter-UAS, and Roboteam, a robot maker. The two Israel-based companies got their footholds in the American market with CTTSO contracts and are now both thriving, he said.
As for other items, training is essential. “I would rather do fewer projects so we can fund prototypes and get them to users, and then train the users how to use them,” he said.
Few prototypes and little or no training on how to use them can result in the valley of death. Without proper instruction on how to use a new technology, it languishes, or the office gets poor quality feedback, he said
As for its success rate, a CTTSO official at this year’s Dec. 12 briefing, Gabe Ramos, said about 25 to 50 percent of the technologies it funds finds buyers. While that may not seem like much, “this is basic research and development,” he reminded the participants.