Special Operations Command Opens Doors for Small Firms
"I would rather play a lot of blackjack than play roulette,” James “Hondo” Geurts, the chief of Special Operations Command’s acquisition, technology and logistics organization said recently.
The analogy spells out his philosophy when it comes to procuring new technologies special operators need to carry out their unique missions. Small, carefully placed bets on niche technologies have a better payoff, in the long run, than spending a lot of funding on any one big program, he said at this year’s National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference.
He wants to fund the technologies “that will transition quickly, then keep moving on,” he said.
“Things are changing so fast we don’t have three years to figure out what we want to do to support an operation. I’m happy if I have three months to figure out some of these things,” he said.
Unique technology needs mean more opportunities for small businesses and startups to get their foot in the door with SOCOM, program managers have said. The command has become known as an organization that has come up with some inventive ways to speed up traditional military acquisition regimes.
“We want new voices and new ideas,” Geurts said.
One practice SOCOM uses to acquire and discover new technologies is “technical experimentation” venues.
It invites technology developers to bring their works in progress to a hosted event three to four times per year. Each event has a specific theme. Special operators with experience in the field are on hand to assess the technology and provide feedback, which helps them to improve their products, said Kelly Stratton-Feix, director of acquisition agility at special operations forces’ acquisition, technology and logistics office.
A request for information is posted through FedBizOpps, and advertised on LinkedIn and Facebook pages. Technology providers reply with a white paper, which is then reviewed by users such as components, theater commands and program offices. The users identify the experiments that they are interested in seeing, and the technology provider then receives an invitation to participate, she said.
Technical experimentations “provide a win-win environment because technology providers can get insight into what’s important to the user early in the development cycle and we get to see technology early on, and often identify additional use-cases that haven’t been considered by the developer,” said Stratton-Feix.
For those who cannot make it to one of these events, the command launched a web-based technology repository/scouting platform called “Vulcan.”
This tool, which is searchable and accessible to any government employee, enables technology providers to quickly describe technologies they are offering and to upload supporting documentation to a secure, shared, searchable central database, Stratton-Feix said.
A registered Vulcan user who sees an interesting technology can issue a one-time use “token” to the technology provider who can then upload a scout card containing further information about the product.
“Vulcan is a work in progress,” she said. There are currently more than 1,500 scout cards loaded, with more than 700 registered government users, she added.
There are two other means to initiate contact with SOCOM.
One is the director of small business who provides guidance and information to industry and commercial partners on how to get their foot in the door with the command.
“This office should be one of a small business’ first contacts when initiating communication with USSOCOM,” Stratton-Feix recommended.
The technology and industry liaison office is another conduit to present information on capabilities to the various PEOs, directorates and others responsible for the research and development, acquisition, production and sustainment of materiel and technology platforms. It has a web portal where ideas can be submitted.
Another high-profile effort to reach out to the larger technology community is SOFWERX, an unclassified, open collaboration facility designed to bring non-traditional partners from industry, academia and the government together to work on the command’s most challenging problems.
The building located in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was intentionally chosen so those wanting to collaborate with SOCOM didn’t need to go through onerous security checkpoints at nearby MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, where SOCOM headquarters is found.
The facility, and a nearby workshop known as DirtyWerx, conduct design thinking sessions, technology sprints, rapid prototyping and other events with government, academia and innovators in the commercial marketplace. It is also the central node in the command’s efforts to push advanced manufacturing and 3D printing technology to operational units, Stratton-Feix said.
Geurts warned that SOFWERX is not intended to be a “bypass” facility to get around traditional ways for the command to acquire technology. It is intended to be “way left” of that process, he said.
Along with these facilities, events and web portals, SOCOM employs some contract vehicles to speed up the traditional acquisition process, which is normally subject to the time-consuming Federal Acquisition Regulation regime.
“Velocity is our competitive advantage,” Geurts said. “That is what we bring to the fight,” he added, speaking of the command’s acquisition enterprise.
He returned to the roulette analogy. The four services spend a lot of time writing requirements then they “throw the ball on the wheel and let it ride.”
Cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA) have been used by the military to provide some seed money to potential vendors and kick start technology development.
The command established ways to make that process even more streamlined by creating an “Overarching CRADA,” which has already been signed by Geurts. If firms find the CRADA acceptable they simply add their corporate information and sign the document.
“This process now allows for [Overarching CRADAs] to be established in weeks to months compared to the year-long traditional process,” Stratton-Feix said.
In addition, CRADA partners can now enter in individual work plans with any of the command’s program executive offices or directorates. There are currently 156 CRADAs and 10 active individual work plans with several more in the works, the command said.
SOCOM must comply with the same statutory and regulatory measures required of the military departments. However, the SOF AT&L team “aggressively utilizes the inherent freedom and flexibility of the DoD 5000 series of directives and instructions by streamlining processes and tailoring documentation in developing and managing SOF-peculiar programs,” said Stratton-Feix.
That directive includes such vehicles as “urgent operational needs” and “immediate war fighter needs,” which allows for more rapid technology acquisition, as long as solutions are not developmental and can be acquired off the shelf with few changes.
Other transaction authorities, or OTAs, allow in certain circumstances for program managers to go outside traditional contracts to rapidly acquire prototypes and forgo FAR requirements as long as the agreement is with a “nontraditional defense contractor” and there is some cost-sharing, as the regulations stated.
“Non-FAR contracts are a great device but not a panacea,” Geurts said.
Geurts wants small businesses and startups to use these various portals to kick off the process of putting their ideas and products in front of SOCOM.
He meets regularly with vendors, but “don’t come selling me a widget,” he warned. He wants to hear from potential suppliers when they are having a hard time with the process, or if they have ideas on how the command can be a better customer.
“What keeps me up at night is somebody has an idea that can’t get to me,” he said.