– If small businesses want to win Marine Corps contracts in this uncertain budget climate, they will have to fight even harder to get noticed.
The service isn’t going to bend over backwards for them.
“Step up,” Brig. Gen. Frank L. Kelley, commander of Marine Corps Systems Command, told an industry crowd Dec. 14 at a National Defense Industrial Association Small Business Opportunities conference.
Kelley and the command’s executive director, John D. Burrows, challenged business owners to go beyond current efforts to sell their products and services. Despite budget concerns, there will be plenty of opportunities for small firms to do business with the Marine Corps, officials said. But companies need to do their homework first and understand how the service is changing as the wars of the last decade end.
“We’re going back to the Pacific; we’re going back to the expeditionary; we’re going back to our Naval heritage — our Naval roots,” Kelley said.
Industry will have to conduct market research and act fast given the changing needs, Burrows said.
“A lot of this will be pop-up targets, and you have to be able to engage quickly,” he said.
A variety of MCSC acquisition leaders were on hand to meet with companies and discuss the command’s needs. Whether they oversaw the buying of ground vehicles, arms, robots or body armor, officials repeated two priorities throughout the day: weight and energy.
These two subjects crept into most of the discussion of business opportunities, which ran the gamut from turning all vehicles into optionally manned or unmanned platforms to upgrading explosive ordnance disposal kits.
Other areas where officials saw a role for small businesses: improved batteries, nonlethal weapons, lightweight body armor, constructing urban villages for training and installing new targets in all of the service’s ranges.
Smaller companies could even get in on one of the Defense Department’s largest acquisition program since World War II, officials said.
Since its inception in 2006, the program office for Mine-Resistant Ambush-Protected vehicles has grown from 17 employees to more than 1,500. About 27,000 vehicles have been built in that time. The program thus far had essentially been closed off to small businesses, but not anymore, said Carl Bradshaw, a contracting officer for MRAP.
“At first our goal was to build the trucks,” he said. “Now these vehicles are becoming a program of record and they need support for their sustainability. That is where now we are transitioning and we’ll be coming out with a lot more procurement requirements to support the program for small businesses.”
Of the 11 “buying” commands in the Navy, MCSC is probably the most accessible to small companies, officials said. But the Navy as a whole has been failing in its efforts to give contracts to smaller firms, they said.
The “sweet spot” for small businesses comes in the form of contracts between $3,000 and $150,000, said Rear Adm. Sean F. Crean, director of the Navy’s small business programs.
But just 54 percent of contracts within that range last year went to small businesses. That is the equivalent of an F-grade in school, Crean said. This year, the percentage is up to 65 percent, a “D.”
“We’ve got a ways to go before we make honor roll,” he said.
Still, Kelley put the onus on industry, urging business owners to go the extra mile. Industry representatives should go beyond pitching products to engage officials in actual debate, he said.
Businesses will know they are making progress if they can get MCSC officials to start drawing diagrams and scenarios on their white boards, Kelley said.
“You better bring your game and your markers if you come into our office,” the general told one business owner.
But it isn’t easy for a small company to weave its way through the Pentagon’s multiple bureaucracies. One representative said that his company has a technology that could help detect fertilizer smuggled into Afghanistan to make bombs while still allowing the free flow of legal fertilizer that the local farming population depends on. But he ran into brick walls at the Marine Corps when trying to initiate a requirement for such a product.
“We’re not looking for funding,” the executive said. The technology is commercially available and battlefield-proven, he said. He has been to Marine Corps bases and labs and has talked to Marines all over the country who say they want the technology. “Our challenge is getting it to them,” he said.
Kelley gave the businessman kudos for the steps he had taken.
“But there is something you’re not doing,” the general told him. “And that is getting in with our requirements guys to make it happen.”
Kelley added: “You have to press. You have to press, press, press.”
Small businesses may face even greater obstacles with defense spending on the chopping block. The Pentagon already has planned nearly $500 billion in reductions over the next decade. But if lawmakers remain deadlocked on how to lower the federal deficit, another $500 billion worth of automatic cuts will hit the Defense Department.
That would be catastrophic, Rep. Rob Wittman, R-Va., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, said during a keynote address. It would take the United States from a superpower down to being a regional power, the congressman said.
“The longer we let this go on, the more likely you are going to see budget scenarios coming out of the Pentagon that paint some pretty gloomy pictures,” Wittman said. “You will not, cannot, balance the budget or get anywhere close to that by saying, ‘Hey, listen, we’re just going to go after defense.’”
Just the perception of a weakened U.S. military results in a more dangerous world, he said.