VIEWPOINT SPECIAL OPERATIONS
Putting the Right Special Ops Tech in the Right Hands
Defense Dept. photoA few decades ago, I went through the Army’s Ranger School — okay, maybe several decades ago. One of the most important lessons I learned is that every operation starts with a good plan and, conversely, it’s hard to recover from a bad plan.
If you know there are going to be obstacles along your route, you need to have a plan to negotiate those obstacles. If you know there will be a river between you and your objective, you better bring a rope and have your team rehearsing how to build rope bridges before you depart. You don’t stumble upon a river, throw your hands up and proclaim it to be the “River of Death.”
So why has the phrase “Valley of Death” staked such a strong claim in our defense acquisition canon? To be sure, there are valleys in our acquisition process, but they are there for a reason. Not every concept should cross over to become a prototype. Not every prototype should cross over to become a product, and not every product should be produced at scale. Some ideas just don't warrant continued investment by the government, and that's okay. In fact, the earlier we determine that, the better it is for the taxpayer and the better it is for industry partners.
It is a problem, however, when good concepts, prototypes and products don't make it across the valleys when they should. These relevant ideas need assistance. They need a plan — a rope bridge — across the valley, which only becomes a valley of death if you don't have a plan.
At Special Operations Command, we're committed to teaming with industry partners to provide those rope bridges. We've invested in several bridges for use both by our veteran industry partners who have been across the valley before, and especially to our new partners that aren't familiar with the obstacles.
Let's assume that every effort shares the same objective: to enter production at scale. If true, then we should always start with that end in mind. We need to envision success and set the conditions to achieve that success.
The first rope bridge is the socom.mil website, which explains that the command uniquely manages all phases of the acquisition process under one roof: science and technology to programs of record to sustaining those programs over their lifecycle. That means we own all the valleys, too. We're responsible for identifying good technology, maturing that technology, getting that technology into production and fielding it to our operators. We can't blame someone else for the valleys; they are our valleys.
We have some great bridges for the first valley you may need to cross: concept to prototype. And most of these bridges help with the subsequent pitfalls as well.
For great concepts, a sturdy bridge for this first valley is Small Business Innovation Research Phase 1 funding. Phase 1 is for white papers, which if successful, proceed to Phase 2 prototyping efforts. Of our Phase 1 efforts, 59 percent go on to Phase 2. Why is that? Because each of our SBIRs is sponsored by one of our program managers who asked for the technology and needs vendors to be successful for their program to be successful. The SBIR Phase 1 rope is pulling ideas across the first valley.
For this first valley, we also offer an online tool — eSOF, which allows submissions that garner one of several responses. We may tell you that we aren't interested, either because your proposal isn't unique to Special Operations Forces or because we're already invested in a similar capability. Remember, not every concept should cross the valley. The responsiveness of eSOF allows you to get that answer rapidly at very little cost to you. About 10 percent of eSOF proposals do get invited to either submit additional information or provide a briefing.
If 10 percent doesn't sound high, I would highly encourage potential vendors to contact our Office of Small Business Programs. Their reason for existence is to provide ropes to our small business partners and, like true sherpas, they may be able to guide you to the best crossing sites. They can give you tips for your eSOF proposal, discuss pitfalls to avoid, or may be able to show you other opportunities. These sherpas have helped the command exceed small business goals every year and set new records for dollars awarded to small businesses in fiscal year 2022.
Many of the ropes we've discussed will help good technology needed by special operators to cross the next valley into production. If it is a game-changing technology, our SOFWERX platform provides a low barrier-of-entry sounding board for your capability. SOFWERX facilitates collaboration events, assessment events and Tech Tuesday presentations, all of which are great opportunities to introduce us to prototypes with the potential to be awarded a commercial business-to-business agreement after evaluation and selection by stakeholders. There are 75,657 innovative minds in the SOFWERX ecosystem that benefit from staying informed on what matters to the command.
If a Phase 2 SBIR is reached, there is a 25 percent or higher chance an idea will move on to Phase 3 production within a Special Operations Command program, in addition to the potential to transition to production through other federal or commercial transactions. Again, while that number may not seem high, it is among the highest in the Defense Department because of the direct participation of the command’s program managers.
Another great bridge on offer are the Technology and Experimentation events, which are held several times a year and provide a relevant training environment with representatives from our operational community to provide feedback on prototypes. There is no guarantee of a production contract based on the event, but vendors will learn how well their prototype works in a special ops environment and what the operators think of it.
When applicants have a mature product, I highly encourage them to enter the relevant information into vulcan-sof.com. Vulcan is an online repository of technology and product information that is accessible by many government employees from across not only the Defense Department, but other government agencies as well. Our program managers use Vulcan to conduct market research, support technology experimentation and evaluate capabilities against emerging needs. It is a useful tool to cross from product to scale.
Finally, the best and most reliable bridges are the operators themselves. A massive advantage for special operations acquisition is the experience of the end users. They are on average older than their service counterparts, competitively assessed and have years of training, education and operational deployments.
They provide great feedback to guide good technology across each of the valleys, but their most important contribution may come during the last valley — product to scale — because they will be the final arbiter of whether a product successfully completes operational testing and gets released for fielding.
In all cases, the acquisition efforts that I have seen that have never crossed this final valley are the ones that didn't have operator support from the beginning. The first time operators see a technology can't be during operational testing. We’ll help get them involved early and often.
Planning is essential. I would encourage industry partners to always ask for the plan from their SOCOM counterpart — not just across the next valley but all the valleys.
I'll return to my Ranger School vignette to close out this point. On one patrol I remember, we arrived at the banks of a river we knew would be there and calmly passed the word back for the pre-designated ranger student responsible for the rope to come forward. When he arrived, he didn't have the rope and explained that he had given it to another ranger student standing alongside the trail. Befuddled, we began to try to locate this mystery ranger.
Luckily, a short distance back the way we had traveled we found the rope neatly hanging from a tree branch that in the sleep-deprived, calorie-deficient mind of a ranger student might have resembled an outstretched human arm. We grabbed the rope, built the bridge and crossed the river. A good plan had saved poor execution. Plan for the valleys, and none of them will be fatal to the game-changing technology required by Special Operations Forces.
James H. Smith is the acquisition executive, U.S. Special Operations Command.