Something Special About Doing Business With SOCOM

By Ariel Robinson
There is a reason why many defense contractors consider U.S. Special Operations Command a dream customer. SOCOM knows what it wants, and it moves quickly to get it. It follows the same federal procurement regulations as the conventional branches of the military, but its acquisitions move faster in large measure because it is smaller, controls its own budget and has a leaner bureaucracy.

With the Defense Department now focused on technological innovation in the military — or the lack thereof — SOCOM might offer some useful lessons, experts said.

Special operations equipment is procured by the office of acquisition, technology and logistics. SOF AT&L over time has fine-tuned its acquisition “best practices” and these are shaped by the unique missions of SOF units.

To understand this, consider how the conventional Army acquires its “soldier systems” — that is everything a soldier wears, shoots or carries, from boots and T-shirts to tactical radios and night-vision goggles.

Compared to how the regular Army buys equipment, special operations forces could not be more different. Designing and procuring a soldier system is a complex challenge, especially for the general purpose Army that must support a huge force of nearly a million soldiers.

As Andrew Fowler, vice president and general manager at Bates Footwear describes it, the Army tries to develop the “best products that can fit the broad spectrum of hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform to execute a wide range of tasks.”

A problem for the Army is that the defense acquisition process was designed for major weapon systems and is not well suited to the soldier system portfolio that has multiple components that have to be customized for particular missions. From a budgetary standpoint, the soldier “system” is more of a laundry list of items needed.

Additionally, the Army’s own practices make it difficult to buy the most innovative equipment. Many companies are hesitant to develop products for the Army because, unlike SOCOM, it places a greater focus on vendor competition and getting the lowest price than on buying the best product available. As one industry executive explained, the conventional force can only contract something that everyone could make; that way, it would get the most bidders, who would compete for the contract at the lowest price. “It ends up being more of a lowest common denominator dynamic.”

The practice of choosing the lowest-cost products, known as lowest price, technically acceptable, or LPTA, is standard when buying soldier systems. These heavily competed contracts have drawbacks, however, such as the possibility that the Army might be buying subpar products.

These issues are less problematic for SOCOM, which is only responsible for procuring “special operations peculiar” items, that is, items for which there is no service common requirement. If mission-specific needs are identified by operators in the field, SOCOM will adopt readily available commercial off-the-shelf or service-provided solutions even if they don’t fully meet the operator’s needs. “In some cases, a capability at 70 to 80 percent is acceptable when no current capability is in the field,” said Col. Joe Capobianco, SOF warrior’s program executive officer.

A SOCOM spokesman explained that operators in the field first identify equipment requirements. “These gaps are validated at the highest levels within the command and multiple technology solutions are analyzed as potential solutions to bridge gaps,” he told National Defense. “SOCOM will look at all currently available options including commercial-off-the-shelf solutions and items already fielded within the conventional services. Currently, SOCOM has SOF unique requirements across all portfolios to address niche requirements for individual equipment, survival, tactical, medical, weapons and vehicle systems.”

The command has its own requirements validation process, called Special Operation Forces Capabilities Integration and Development System.

SOCOM spends about $3 billion a year on equipment, compared to $14 billion by the U.S. Army. Its relatively small size and independent procurement authority gives SOCOM a distinct advantage. It can get things done fast. In the conventional force, competing priorities result in months, if not years, of bureaucratic churn as assumptions are questioned, risks are avoided and decisions are constantly reevaluated. For SOF, there’s no guesswork involved in determining the need; it has already been identified by operators in the field. The task then is to find the right solution as efficiently and expediently as possible.

Bob Mabry, special operations relationship manager at Battelle, said in a January National Defense article: “That’s exactly what the operational forces want. They want something that works. They want it now, and they want you out of the way.”

To industry representatives who are new to working with SOF, the rate at which things progress can be surprising. In mid-2006, officials from SOF and Bates Footwear connected at one of the hundreds of industry outreach events SOF AT&L attends each year. Ron Woznick, a Bates sales executive at Wolverine Worldwide, recalled that SOCOM was interested in a boot for “high-alpine, high-abrasion environments” like Tora Bora, Afghanistan, one of Osama bin Laden’s first suspected hideouts. A partnership between SOF, Bates, Wolverine and a sister company called Merrell (whose products were already being used by SOF) resulted in a completely new, American-made boot just over a year later. A contract of $1.8 million for 8,400 pairs of mountain footwear was awarded in August 2007. By May the following year, all 16,800 boots, named for the region they were needed for, were produced, delivered and fielded. It was the fastest move from an identified solution to an awarded contract Woznick had ever seen. “Decisions were made very quickly,” he said. They were willing to come to terms with trade-offs in order to get what they needed.

The story of the Tora Bora boot is not unique. It illustrates SOF AT&L’s key acquisition principles: Deliver capabilities to the user expeditiously, exploit proven techniques and methods, keep warfighters involved throughout the process, take risk and manage it, noted David Costello, head of the industry group Warrior Protection and Readiness Coalition.

When programs do fail or get terminated, the majority of the time that occurs early during developmental activities or combat evaluations, said the SOCOM spokesman. “If there are failures, the focus is on making that happen early, before a lot of resources are put against the effort. Once an effort has matured to a ‘project or program’ status, rarely are efforts canceled.”

Close communication between the product development team and the end users is another way SOF AT&L takes advantage of its small size and tight networks. In the case of the Tora Bora boot, SOF acquisition professionals were able to make quick decisions on trade-offs because operators were testing the product in the field and delivering direct feedback, which was then analyzed and applied to decisions.

Building relationships and expanding its network of partners is another area of emphasis at SOF AT&L. A recent National Defense article discussed the introduction of freeze-dried plasma to the SOF medical kit — a technology the French and Germans were already using by the time the Food and Drug Administration approved its use for SOF in 2012.

SOF AT&L has also increased its use of collaborative vehicles to leverage early partnerships with industry, academia and other government agencies. In 2014 it invested more than double the funds that the Defense Department did in Small Business Innovation Research, which resulted in new technologies like ruggedized digital cameras and miniature multi-band radar beacons.

In the conventional Army, the pressure to follow procedure and avoid risk is real. Acquisition professionals have become so bound to the processes that the Defense Department has had to rethink its guidance materials to make them broader in the hopes that they would empower the acquisition workforce to take things into its own hands and use the guidance as just that — guidance — instead of a checklist of actions.

Policy changes are only as effective as their subjects’ ability to implement them, though, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the slower the change. In the Army’s case, even when the authority exists to use more streamlined approaches for procuring soldier system components, applying that authority required so much justification that it is ultimately easier and faster to take the more traditional path, noted a 2014 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another advantage that SOCOM has when buying equipment is the prestige and potential long-term opportunities associated with being a SOCOM supplier. “I’m not going to keep my factory running on SOF business,” said a senior industry official on the condition of anonymity, “but it’s the ultimate platform for innovation and grounding your brand [by] working with the most demanding customers.”

Direct input from the warfighter throughout the procurement process creates an acquisition culture of mutual accountability, said Oakley Director of Military Sales Erick Poston. “We pretty much get the direct input, which [is] fantastic and we would have it no other way, but it also comes with a responsibility — you have to build the best stuff.”

Trusting relationships are essential in the military procurement business, industry executives said. “They tell you exactly what is right and wrong with your product and with those absolute facts, you can figure out how to make it better,” said Fowler. “That’s very gratifying and encourages us to continue the relationship with them.”

But there is such a thing as too much access. Direct operator input is one of the most valued aspects of working with SOF, but it can be challenging. “They’re the alpha males of the alpha males,” said one industry representative whose company has worked with both SOF and the Army for decades. Even when a piece of kit undergoes a simple upgrade, end users from each service want the products to be service-specific. “We’re Navy and we’re blue; we’re Army and we’re green,” he said. It is no different with SOF.

Ariel Robinson is a contributing writer.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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