Turning the So-Called 'Valley of Death' Green

By James S.B. Chew and Arun Seraphin

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The defense technology community spends a lot of time grumbling about the “Valley of Death,” a term referring to the place where innovative technologies funded by the Defense Department fail to make it into warfighters’ hands because they can’t make the transition from prototype to a real product.


All this grumbling can lead high-level decision makers in the Pentagon and Congress and new companies and young, talented technical people thinking about entering the defense sector to question whether anything — including a business or career — could grow in such a barren and hostile valley.


But there are green pastures in that valley, where technical teams are finding paths and meeting partners, customers and users and crossing over to deliver next-generation technologies to support national defense.


The National Defense Industrial Association’s Science and Engineering Technology Division recently held its annual conference, which focused on how science and technology programs can support critical operational missions, with speakers from the Joint Staff, Africa Command and Southern Commands.


The week showcased those who survived the Valley of Death. Conference attendees learned about the success of the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Joint Capability Technology Demonstration program in transitioning more than 75 percent of its activities into capabilities for operational forces or into acquisition programs.


The Defense Innovation Unit described programs that have delivered capabilities based on commercial technologies to warfighters and have funded contracts in place in areas ranging from hypersonics to cybersecurity.


Army speakers discussed transitions of vehicle and body armor, ground vehicle subsystems, fuels and lubricants, combat rations and uniforms. Attendees learned that the Office of Naval Research’s Future Naval Capabilities program has transitioned more than 200 products.


Other activities are well known for their successes. The Small Business Innovation Research program has delivered countless products providing next generation capabilities to operational forces over the past decades. The program’s economic impacts are even wider. A Defense Department-commissioned study of the program found it had delivered $347 billion in economic impact and helped create more than 1.5 million jobs.


A few key themes were repeated throughout the weekend and should be considered best practices and replicated across the science and technology enterprise. Successes resulted from the work of dedicated scientists and engineers from industry, universities and government — along with enlightened management and leadership from both customers and technology producers — to overcome the barriers that can stifle the department’s adoption of the many innovative technologies it funds and develops.


Early and active customer engagement with users is the market research necessary to create a map across the Valley of Death. It also helps create the market, by informing the requirements community of emerging technologies that are ready for incorporation into systems. Any community’s influence on these requirements may help drive programming and budgeting of funding for the transition of successful programs.


Another best practice is streamlined acquisition vehicles to shorten timelines. There are numerous ways to tailor contracting processes, such as using the flexibilities in the Federal Acquisition Regulations. The Joint Program Executive Office for Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defense used these flexibilities to support Operation Warp Speed and speed the nation’s response to COVID-19.


Other activities include: making full use of the sole source follow-on contract authorities built into the small business program to move projects into development and production; using the authorities under Section 4004 of Title 10 of the U.S. Code to move projects solicited under broad agency announcements into low-rate production; or using the follow-on production authorities under other transaction agreements.


The use of modeling and simulation and new digital twin and design capabilities also supports affordable sustainment and agile modernization during all stages of development, including the requirements development process.


As proven in commercial microelectronics and aviation, this practice can speed the transition from research to prototype to production and is directly applicable to almost all defense acquisition, sustainment and modernization programs. Conference attendees learned of the department’s state-of-the-art digital microelectronics twinning capability, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.


Technology transition will always be a challenge, and we have not yet built an interstate over the Valley of Death. But there are mechanisms, authorities and — most importantly — best practices to overcome the challenges and incorporate new technologies into operational use.


In the months to come, the Emerging Technology Institute and the Science and Engineering Technology Division will continue to work together to find and highlight these success stories, share the best practices and recommend changes to the system that might make things more efficient in the future.


We invite NDIA membership to share their successful journeys with us, as well as recommendations for the association, Congress, industry and government to create more maps and better paths, so that hopefully someday this so-called valley is filled with greener terrain. 


James S.B. Chew is chair of NDIA’s Science and Engineering Technology Division and Arun Seraphin is the deputy director of the association’s Emerging Technologies Institute.

Topics: Acquisition, Defense Department

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