Missing Synergy: How Defense, Commercial Sectors Can Benefit Each Other

By Pat Acox and Adi Raval

iStock illustration

There are very few emerging dual-use technologies where the Defense Department and the commercial sector can not only equally benefit from cutting-edge research and development but do so simultaneously.

The commercial sector is outpacing defense in both scaling and internal R&D spending. Areas like hypersonics and autonomous vehicles have gained significant investment from the private sector yet are not ready for widespread commercial adoption.

However, the commercial production of these technologies is significantly more advanced than government-led science-and-technology projects. Never mind that the Defense Department is obligated by law to not build technologies that it can procure commercially.

In the ground autonomy market, funding for the entire industry is estimated to be more than $100 billion since 2010, significantly outpacing U.S. defense ground autonomy funding of roughly $3 billion by an order of magnitude. Yet despite the relatively limited budget — the department’s investments over the next five years are focused on deploying 1,800 autonomous vehicles on a path to more than 40,000 — resulting in cutting-edge technology making its way to warfighters on a massive scale.

This playbook should sound all too familiar. After all, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and defense funding are why we have GPS, the internet and the computer mouse. Defense funds early investments — and eventually commercial companies invest and advance technology to improve lives, gain efficiencies and reduce cost. The fact is that ground autonomy should already be mentioned alongside GPS and the internet, but it’s not. Why not?

One reason stems from the commercial sector no longer believing that defense dollars can help drive growth as they once did. The other relates to the department failing to make its projects more commercially attractive. For example, its method of acquiring commercial products and services is complicated. The department typically wants to adapt a commercial product into a military one, and commercial companies are reluctant to agree to intellectual property contractual clauses. The synergy that once was is now missing.

The Common Tactical Truck provides a useful case study for how commercial and defense sectors can reap the benefits of partnering with each other in ways not seen since the Pentagon’s technological breakthroughs of the 1960s and 1970s.

The Army is asking for up to 30,000 trucks. That kind of scale is exactly what private sector companies require to justify the time and investment needed to pursue a highly competitive contract. Building at scale has oftentimes been lacking in the Defense Department’s contract award process, therefore limiting involvement from the commercial sector.

Another common lament from the private sector is a sense that the product will never actually make it out of the science-and-technology space and into full-scale production, hence the reluctance to participate or invest. The truck contract pathway addresses this issue by laying out specific timelines from the process for evaluation to a rapid prototyping phase and then ultimately to a production contract, all within an accelerated four-year timespan.

As is the case with the Common Tactical Truck, the department should put a preponderance of these activities within the program executive offices versus in the science-and-technology community, which is not to say that its role should be minimized. Far from it. S&T has an incredibly important function — they are effectively the “Google X” of the country — and should remain focused on moonshot technologies that define our competitive advantage in the world.

However, they often are incentivized to ward off transition efforts, as budgets are inflexible and limited by bureaucratic inefficiencies. Private sector companies know this and therefore are reluctant to invest in a technology that will never transition from early development. A glance through the 2023 Budget Justification Books shows just how much money goes to studying problems that have been solved in the commercial world.

What the Army is looking for in the new fleet of Common Tactical Trucks is based largely upon common commercial standards that don’t require private sector partners to reinvent the wheel. The Army should be commended for establishing a baseline vehicle specification that private sector partners should already be familiar with.

Of course, it will be a bespoke autonomous vehicle for the Army, but it will be based upon a platform like vehicles on the commercial side. The program will also use proven off-the-shelf autonomy kits as opposed to potentially experiencing unnecessary delays and cost overruns by developing such technology in house.

Similarly, the Defense Department requires new vehicles to meet military-grade specifications, which some in the commercial sector have inferred as meaning that their vehicles won’t be able to meet the military’s rigorous standards.

This assumption is incorrect, as the stringent requirements and specifications for both can be quite similar and therefore lead to economies of scale for both defense and the commercial sector.

The Common Tactical Truck program addresses the delta between defense and commercial as the prototyping agreements note “whether commercially based variants can meet military requirements.”

The key takeaway for the private sector is not to shy away from bidding on contracts with military-grade specifications, as the case might very well be that their commercial off-the-shelf products already meet or exceed such requirements.

In addition, commercial and defense have a shared interest in developing vehicles with a safety-first mindset, while also both needing to design platforms for similar types of rugged terrain, such as logistical supply runs for the military, and logging and mining roads for commercial.

Contract awards like the Common Tactical Truck should be the model going forward to boost commercial sector growth from the Defense Department while also meeting commercial’s requirements. But for such benefits to flourish, both entities must also operate with an open mindset and without preconceived notions. By doing so, a new synergy can be formed between defense and commercial. ND

Pat Acox is Robotic Research Autonomous Industries’ head of defense and Adi Raval is head of communications.

Topics: Research and Development

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