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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Secretive SOCOM Opens Up to Private Sector (UPDATED)
Secretive SOCOM Opens Up to Private Sector (UPDATED)
By Sandra I. Erwin

U.S. special operations forces are exceptionally tight-lipped about their duty assignments. But they are becoming increasingly forthright about their interest in innovative technology.

Taking a page from the Silicon Valley business playbook, the U.S. Special Operations Command has opened up its own technology incubator in Ybor City, a historic Tampa, Florida, neighborhood not far from SOCOM headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base.

SofWerX is a 10,000 square-foot open floor building with the look and feel of a tech startup. The name is a melding of SOF and a stylized spelling of "Works." SOCOM decided it needed to do something in response to growing concerns that the military has been a technology laggard and needs to create new channels to communicate with the faster-moving private sector.

“We’re flipping the engagement with industry,” said James F. Geurts, acquisition executive for U.S. Special Operations Command. He oversees a staff of 600 researchers, procurement and contracting officers.

SofWerX sounds a lot like the Pentagon’s Silicon Valley outpost, called DIUX, for defense innovation unit experimental. But there is one big difference. Whereas DIUX serves as a matchmaker between the tech industry and military buyers, SOCOM has contracting authority that it can use to sign deals with vendors on the spot, resulting in a much faster procurement cycle.

At a time when anyone can buy advanced weapons in the open market, U.S. special operators value speed more than anything else when it comes to acquisitions, Geurts said last week at the Atlantic Council, in Washington, D.C.

Operators don’t want to be surprised, he said. “I don’t know what I’ll need two years from now.” The much-maligned Pentagon procurement system does not help solve that issue. Defense Department buyers are only comfortable with traditional big-ticket weapon systems that take years to develop. The alternative for front-line commanders is to make emergency requests. But SOCOM operators need a flexible system that is not either or. “We try to have 15 to 20 ways to buy something. Velocity is my combat advantage.”

The Pentagon typically takes one of two paths, a “monolithic approach that is good for everything, and the rapid reaction stuff,” Geurts said. Special operators, meanwhile, have a “broad spectrum of needs, so we ought to have a wide spectrum of tools.” The federal acquisition rules are meant to be adaptable but the procurement workforce sticks with what is familiar. “The real trick is how to develop, train, challenge the workforce,” he said. The same could be said about defense contractors. “Over time you look a lot like us. It becomes a self-reinforcing system.” Vendors “mirror what we ask for,” Geurts added. “So how do we get the enterprise comfortable with a broad way of doing things?”

At SofWerX, officials host monthly meetings focused on topics like surveillance sensors, open source software and cybersecurity. “Three months ago we did a hackathon,” he said. These events draw commercial companies that routinely would not do business with the government. “We find that the up-and-coming generation wants to solve problems,” said Geurts. Whereas many commercial companies have steered clear of the defense market because of the red tape, SOCOM has been a magnet. The reason is that the command “can plug them in,” he added. “That is the challenge for DIUX. You can create the right match, have a great meeting, but how do you get on contract?”

SOCOM also encourages operators to think like tech entrepreneurs. “We have put engineering and manufacturing teams at fire base levels,” said Geurts. “They have 3D printers — design and development and manufacturing downrange, at the point of need.”

Defense Department leaders have been planning investments in next-generation technology — an initiative known as the “third offset.” Geurts worries that efforts like this tend to get bogged down in endless debates that waste valuable time. “We’re preoccupied about what it is,” he said of the third offset. “For me, it means speed, transition whatever it is as fast as possible. Our enemies’ ability to transition is outpacing us,” Geurts said. “It used to not matter so much but now we’re all using a commercial toolset. What the third offset should be is how to transition faster than anyone else in the world.”

SOCOM is smarting from the lessons of an ambitious program that started three years ago to develop a tactical assault outfit called Talos, also dubbed “Iron Man suit.”

The project suffered from “unreasonable expectations,” said Geurts. The goal is to provide better protection in the form of advanced body armor or exoskeletons. The five-year $100 million project has not delivered any big breakthroughs but is forcing SOCOM to “rethink how we deal with industry, academia, how we think about technology. … If we get there or not is not as important as trying to get there.”

[CLARIFICATION: A SOCOM spokesman said in a statement that Geurts' comments were aimed at explaining how 'We set very high expectations and are benefiting from spinoffs, even if we don't achieve all our goals. The Talos program is not suffering or smarting at all and the whole process is producing interesting spinoffs for potential use in the future. We think that is a success."]

One takeaway is that a system like Talos requires compatible technologies than can be easily plugged into a common interface. A similar approach is used for radios and sensors.

A pressing technology challenge for SOCOM today is logistics, specifically keeping track of equipment deployed to combat zones. Most formations have 50 percent of their equipment supplied by the conventional military services and the other 50 percent is SOCOM-customized. “How do I keep track of all that?” he asked. “I want to use big data, commercial technology, and not have to invest in a SOF logistics system.”

Although SOCOM enjoys a reputation in the defense industry for being easier to work with than the larger military services, analysts caution that the command’s buying channels can be difficult to navigate.

“The complexity of SOCOM buying makes it hard to know who to engage,” said a recent report by Bloomberg Government analyst Cameron Leuthy. A buying decision usually involves multiple players, such as the program office and the component commander. “Analyzing the SOCOM market isn’t easy because of its complex buying organization,” he noted.

SOCOM is the only military combatant command that has direct appropriations and procurement authority, although it doesn’t do all the buying. The military services support SOCOM acquisitions, and SOCOM funds modifications to service-procured equipment to meet unique requirements. SOCOM buying is often faster than the military services, as quick as 180 days, Leuthy said. The command’s acquisition office each year delivers 100 aircraft, 700 tactical vehicles, 4,000 weapon systems, 20 million munitions, 3,000 radios, 2,000 command-control-communications items, and 600 intelligence and surveillance kits.


Re: Secretive SOCOM Opens Up to Private Sector

Excellent idea and article.
Mark J Kinchen at 1/26/2016 9:37 AM

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