Special Operations Command Bypasses Acquisition Red Tape (UPDATED)

By Yasmin Tadjdeh
In December 2013, four special operators were injured after the CV-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft they were riding in were hit by small arms fire as they evacuated U.S. citizens from South Sudan.

Soon after, Special Operations Command’s acquisition arm, working alongside the Army and the Navy, began an effort to field lightweight armored panel kits to give its fleet of Ospreys greater ballistic protection. In less than six months, SOCOM had acquired enough kits for the entire fleet.

That is just one example of SOCOM reacting quickly to meet critical warfighter needs, Jim Smith, deputy director of the Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center, told National Defense.

While many experts criticize the length of time traditional Defense Department acquisition programs take from start to finish, SOCOM has gained a reputation for speedy procurement.
That continued ability to field equipment in weeks or months instead of years will be critical as U.S. military strategy shifts from Afghanistan and focuses on smaller, global missions led by special operations forces, Smith said.

“I believe the urgency [for rapid acquisition] is going to certainly endure and may even increase,” he said. “The relevance of SOF to the current national security strategy, the role they play in support of the geographic combatant commands all over the globe and the expectations for SOF to accomplish a very broad set of missions to include no-fail missions, that’s going to continue … but in a more dispersed, remote, austere environment.”

Smith is one of the top leaders at SORDAC, which is made up of 270 civilian workers and 90 officers. When an urgent need is identified — that is, if something is deemed necessary to the success of a mission or loss of life could occur without it — the acquisition process is streamlined to meet the requirement within 180 days, he noted.

SOCOM’s speed is made possible through a series of special acquisition authorities, including parts of Title 10 in the United States Code and appropriation funding from Congress called Major Force Program-11.

In addition, SORDAC is able to expedite the procurement process by overseeing all technology development, acquisition and logistics for SOF operators in one place, said James Geurts, acquisition executive for SOCOM.

“This synergy enables us to reduce the historical stovepipes between those disciplines and associated gaps as capabilities transition between investment, procurement, fielding and support,” he said.

Geurts said the command is committed to executing these activities on a global scale for both SOF operators and its international partners.

Despite the command’s reputation for fast procurement, Smith made it clear that SOCOM works within the rules of the Defense Department, and doesn’t bypass Pentagon acquisition processes.

Much of its speed is because of the smaller scale of its orders, Smith said. For larger programs, SOF acquisition specialists work alongside the services to field equipment such as fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.

“You don’t get a SOF MH-47 without the Army’s CH-47. You don’t get a SOF AC-130 gunship without the Air Force’s C-130. And you don’t get a SOF CV-22 without the Navy’s V-22. We are extremely reliant on the services for those big acquisitions,” he noted.

By its very nature, SOCOM has to be agile and respond to threats quickly, said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow and director of the defense-industrial initiatives group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

“They have to be incredibly responsive. You can’t project out in five years and say, ‘This is what the crisis of the day in 2019 is going to be, and it’s going to be this kind of hostage scenario, or what have you, and it will be exactly on this spot on the Earth,’” Hunter said.

“It really gets down to being able to identify problems rapidly as they arise, and not kind of take a year to think about whether improvised explosive devices are really kicking our butt or not,” he said.

Before joining CSIS, Hunter worked in the Pentagon and headed up the department’s joint rapid acquisition cell, working to put equipment into the hands of warfighters quickly. He said part of SOCOM’s success in rapidly acquiring technology is because it has more leeway with its budget compared to the services.

“SOCOM, because it has the MPF-11 funds, they have a little more flexibility with their budgets than most of the services do, and that’s a key enabler [to rapid procurement],” he said. “Financial flexibility is absolutely key to being able to respond rapidly.”

“The regular process says, ‘I see I have a need, I put it into my budget, that goes over to the Hill, two years later money shows up, and then I can start to work the problem.’ There’s nothing rapid about that,” he said.

Maintaining relationships with industry is another critical element when it comes to faster procurement, Geurts said.

SOF’s “real strength is our ability to create and leverage a broad network of partnerships with the services, industry, academia and international partners to rapidly identify and transition technology and equipment into capabilities for our SOF warfighters. This network enables us to achieve and maintain a competitive advantage in our acquisition velocity and iteration speed,” he said.

The services have launched initiatives for conventional forces to learn rapid acquisition techniques from the command. The Ghost program, named after Army Gen. George Patton’s Ghost platoon in World War II, gives junior officers in the Air Force the opportunity to work alongside SOCOM acquisition personnel for 120 days in its program executive office for fixed wing aircraft, working on programs such as manned and unmanned aircraft, precision strike and emerging technology.

There have been more than 80 participants so far, Geurts said. He called the initiative a “win-win” for both SOCOM and the Air Force.

Putting new equipment or technology into warfighters’ hands fast can mean life or death for some operators, Smith said.

One piece of technology, freeze-dried plasma, has already saved lives, he noted.

“If you think about the ability to provide plasma to a wounded soldier or sailor on the battlefield, you can’t carry around liquid blood without refrigeration, etc. So there is freeze-dried plasma where you can reconstitute it by adding water,” Smith said.

The French and German armies already use this, he said. In June 2012, SOF received approval from the Food and Drug Administration to begin using the plasma on a limited basis.

“It has been extremely effective. Lives have been saved,” Smith said.

Technology first pioneered by SOCOM is frequently able to trickle down to the services. Now the Army is working on introducing the plasma into the force, he said.

Another example of rapidly fielded technology on the medical front includes truncal and junctional tourniquets, Smith said.

In the past, tourniquets could only address wounds that were on extremities, leaving the truncal and pelvic region — where the femoral artery runs — vulnerable, he noted.

“Working with our SOF medics, we developed an aortic junctional tourniquet and a combat-ready clamp, both of which are now FDA-approved. These provide the ability to stop hemorrhaging at numerous locations of the body and they were approved in 2013. They are now available for use by all conventional forces through the medical supply system,” he said.

Working with SOCOM can be faster than it is with some of the services, said Bob Mabry, special operations relationship manager at Battelle. One reason is because it has less bureaucracy. Some commands can have thousands of acquisition workers in the pipeline, he noted.

“These systems commands … in the Army and the Navy and in the Air Force are so big and so stodgy and so bureaucratic,” Mabry said. They are “inherently very slow.”

SOCOM, on the other hand, needs equipment right away and streamlines its process, Mabry said.

“They have some unique ways of doing things … and it allows them to get things in the field quickly,” he said. “That’s exactly what the operational forces want. They want something that works, they want it now, and they want you to get out of the way.”

Besides a faster turnaround time, SOCOM also offers industry plentiful feedback, Mabry said.

“We’ve got direct access to the operators, we can get feedback from the operators, and we do all the time,” he noted.

Some of the equipment Battelle is working on with SOCOM includes non-standard commercial vehicles, the tactical air initiated launch system and engineering support for the command’s dry combat submersible program.

Polaris Defense, a Medina, Minnesota-based vehicle manufacturer, has sold a number of commercial vehicles to SOCOM.

The company’s MRZR 2 and MRZR 4, lightweight ATVs transportable by V-22, and the MV850, a one-passenger ATV, are under contract by the command, said Jed Leonard, manager of advanced mobility platforms at the company. Both contracts were awarded in 2013.

One of the ways that SOF is able to speed up acquisition is by purchasing off-the-shelf items, Leonard said.

“They’ve certainly had an appetite for leveraging the commercial industry, and they’ve been able to do that and rapidly respond to … rapidly evolving requirements that they have,” he said.

In the case of the MRZR 2 and MRZR 4, Polaris was able to meet a militarized commercial off-the-shelf requirement with commercial pricing in less than 18 months, he noted. With the MV850 it was less than 15 months.

“That’s with little or no R&D money to the government and none of the requirements that come with a typical program of record, so no engineering, manufacturing and development phase and no associated costs with those typical phases of an acquisition process,” he said.

Leonard said SOF has a good track record of communicating with industry “early and often” so companies can react.

By fielding rapidly, SOCOM is able to address certain threats faster, he said. Some equipment procured through traditional processes can take so long to field that the threat they were originally meant to quell has diminished by the time it gets to the battlefield, he noted.

Clarification: Both the MRZR 2 and the MRZR 4 are under contract with Special Operations Command.

Topics: Defense Department, Procurement, Defense Department

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