Readers Sound Off on Recent Stories
Your article, “Defense Department Takes Steps to Energize Cutting-Edge Research” (National Defense, March 2015) reemphasizes the perspective that “they just don’t get it.” There are some fundamental truths about innovation and innovators that must be grasped before any packaged solutions can overcome the lethargy in DoD technology development.
Innovation takes place in the private sector where patents outpace the sum output of all university, non-profit and government labs by about 20:1. Small business and independent inventors out produce big business patent production by about 5:1. Innovation is stifled every time the program manager requires a specific technology or specific features. The program will always be limited by the PM’s imagination and will result in a gray or green box that has exactly the number of screws that was specified.
Innovation is driven by problem solving and not the production of widgets. Inventors are a rare breed who are seldom or never influenced by officials declaring, “OK, now everyone innovate.” Some of the least innovative people are the ones with diplomas. Of the small pool of innovators in the United States, there is a smaller subset who have any interest in DoD challenges.
Ultimately, innovators will be most motivated by pride or money. A DoD contract where the potential reward is 10 percent profit on a R&D contract cannot compete with the notoriety or financial upside of a hit video game. The pace of contracting, the bureaucracy of government, the endless reports and burdensome regulations all conspire to destroy innovation. All of these hurdles are eliminated if the government states, “We will buy whatever product that best solves this problem by this date.”
The dollar limits in the Small Business Innovation Research program do not even cover the cost of a small laboratory let alone fund a research project. But the time needed to write a proposal and to manage the grant sometime exceeds more lucrative contracts. Sporadic funding destroys an innovator’s ability to build a team or to sustain a facility, and innovators have families that must be housed and fed.
Most, if not all, innovations were preceded by experts declaring, “That will never work.” Perhaps this should be the selection criteria. Venture capitalists who invest in technology are almost always wrong — the successful have one grand slam amongst many failures.
If the government tries to pick a technology or approach, they will probably make the wrong choice. If the government will not commit to future product acquisitions, then innovators will never waste years of their lives developing a product where there is only one customer.
If the government wants innovation, then the best mechanism is to remove the barriers they put in place, focus funds on small businesses and independent inventors and reward innovations on par with private sector profits.
A possible framework could be to award thousands of small proof-of-concept grants for any one-page proposal that features a new technology approach. These small grants should have no strings attached, be open to anyone and certainly should never be evaluated by anyone devoid of first-hand entrepreneurial experience. The only requirement would be a final demonstration. If the concept is proven, then a larger, more traditional contract could be provided, or preferably a purchase order.
For classified innovation, agencies should identify inventors who have delivered across many sectors and place them on a fixed, long-term indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity contract with a guaranteed annual minimum.
Of course, there are many more innovation truths that master-planners fail to grasp. The DoD’s success in achieving innovation is going take a lot more than saying, “We are spending billions of dollars. Now, everyone go innovate.”
I am writing to clarify some information in the article regarding the U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) unmanned aircraft system (UAS) program. (National Defense, March 2015)
CBP disagrees with the Office of Inspector General’s inaccurate portrayal of the UAS program — a proven, effective surveillance technology enhancing CBP’s operational capabilities and increasing our awareness along the nation’s borders and coasts. The report shows the OIG has a fundamental lack of understanding of our mission and operations. Its use of apprehension versus detection statistics is an example. Aircraft are only credited with contributing to an apprehension if the aircraft stays on scene until the apprehension is verified, which is not always an effective use of the asset. The role of the UAS, specifically in the case of the Vehicle and Dismount Exploitation Radar (VADER), is to report detections. It is nearly 100 percent effective in the execution of that capability, and this information is then used to aid in CBP’s ground response. Furthermore, there are no limitations on the VADER system by the Joint Field Command (JFC). Limitations existed at one time, but these were external of JFC, and have already been removed and resolved.
CBP provided additional statistics — including how we are in compliance with the Office of Management and Budget’s calculations for costs — to the OIG, but these were not used in the report. While CBP does not concur with the cost calculations, comparing the OIG figure of $12,255 per flight hour with the $66,651 value of contraband seized per UAS flight hour in fiscal year 2013 shows a 444 percent return on investment.
Additionally, CBP’s UAS program is not expanding. There are no plans or contracts in place to purchase additional aircraft beyond the aircraft that was ditched off the coast of California in January 2014.
The UAS program is a valuable tool — one of many — used by CBP in our risk-based approach for border security.
Randolph D. Alles
Office of Air and Marine
U.S. Customs and Border Protection