JUST IN: DoD Program Aims to Bridge Valley of Death’s ‘30-Foot Gap’

By Josh Luckenbaugh

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A common problem for defense contractors, particularly small businesses, is the so-called “valley of death,” where technologies fail to make the transition from prototypes into full-fledged military systems.

The goal of the Defense Department’s Accelerate the Procurement and Fielding of Innovative Technologies, or APFIT, program is to help ensure companies navigate their way across that valley of death, APFIT project manager Devin Bohanan said Aug. 29.

“Sometimes, programs run into a situation where they’ve done everything right in the development cycle,” Bohanan said during a panel discussion at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Emerging Technologies for Defense conference. “They’ve finally proved themselves out, a service or an agency or a combatant command says, ‘I really like this program. I need this prototype in my program of record. This is a good capability. Give me two years — because that’s how long it’s going to take for our budget cycle to catch up and my procurement funding to show up — and then we’ll start buying … at scale.’

“That is a little bit of a tough nut to crack for business, especially a small business,” he continued. “They’ve been marching along that bridge across the valley of death … and then there’s a 30-foot gap at the very end. That’s what APFIT is meant to help fix, the very end of the development cycle.”

APFIT was established in the fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, with $100 million appropriated for the program in fiscal year 2022 and $150 million in fiscal year 2023, according to a Defense Department release. APFIT funding awards are limited to between $10 million and $50 million per program, the release said.

Technologies must meet two key criteria to qualify for APFIT funding, Bohanan said: “Has it finished development” and is a service interested in procuring it; and “is the primary performer a small business or non-traditional” defense contractor?

“If you can answer yes to those two questions, that makes you eligible for potential APFIT funding,” he said. Proposals are submitted through the services, and technologies then must meet some further criteria, such as providing a joint capability and having a sustainability plan, he added.

“We want them to be joint — at the end of the day, we are [in] the Office of the Secretary of Defense. We cannot give the perception that we’re augmenting a service budget,” he said. “We need to be able to make the argument that if this comms system might be going to the Army or the Navy first, but it could benefit everyone. Or if this ground vehicle upgrade may be going to the Army first, but the Marine Corps could use it eventually. That’s what the joint means.”

While APFIT awards count as procurement funding, “and we do expect to buy some amounts of the system,” a major goal of the program is to ensure a small business can “spin up their production line, getting through low-rate initial production, first article testing … so that by the time the service funding does show up two years from now, they’re ready to rock and roll at full-rate production.”

APFIT’s call for proposals through the services is open “today,” Bohanan said. “So, that’s an important point as to what makes APFIT beneficial. We are about to be in [fiscal year 2024], we’re about a month away … we are just starting our [fiscal year 2024] call.”

With Congress in the midst of planning out and appropriating 2024 funding, “we don’t know what we’re going to buy with that funding yet,” he said. “That’s atypical for the way the DoD works, but that’s what allows APFIT to be agile and allows” small businesses “to bridge those final two years of the valley of death and get across it.”


Topics: Defense Department

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