Getting used to it

In this article from National Defense Magazine, Roger Smith of the Army’s Program Executive Office tells gaming companies to “get used to” the DoD’s cumbersome bureaucracy. At issue is the cost for small companies to participate in a market that has tremendous bureaucratic hurdles weighed against the military’s more complex requirements.

Smith’s argument is that the government is going to use technologies that it buys now for decades so the process to buy them is much longer. The government simply won’t “throw away” the systems it already has to use the newer technology.

I think this line of reasoning is flawed for two reasons. First, because it assumes that a set of technologies changing as rapidly as gaming technologies should continue in service for decades, and second because it doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the bureaucratic burden doesn’t just cost those vendors, but costs the Department in lost opportunity. If you make yourself difficult to sell to, you get more expensive less capable stuff slower.

Smith makes the point that the military spends money the way it does because it uses it to build things like tanks; which may remain in service for 20, 40, or even 50 years. That may be true for mature platform technologies, but it wasn’t true for platforms like tanks and airplanes earlier in their development lifecycles. When those platforms were going through rapid periods of innovation some of them didn’t even stay in service for five years.

For example, the Air Force today spends more than a decade to procure a jet aircraft, but during the single decade of the 1960’s, the 100 series airframe designators for fighter aircraft turned over like the numbers on a gas pump. If the DoD had purchased rapidly evolving fighter aircraft in the 1960’s the way it purchases mature platforms now we would have never stayed out ahead on the capability curve. Ditto for tanks in the period between the wars when the then field-grade Eisenhower and Patton were preparing for their big moments by working on the rapid evolution of armor tactics and platforms.

To address the other point; what capabilities from what vendors are the services just not getting access to because the process is simply too taxing? Companies that might try to contribute but can’t figure out how, or it takes too long for them to afford to pursue? What innovative players are simply opting out because the market isn’t deemed worth pursuing when the “tax” of playing is factored in?

Where the DoD has legitimately different requirements, it needs to do acquisition in a manner that addresses those requirements. However, it is to its advantage to take a facilitative / incubation-oriented approach to address those requirements with the minimum burden necessary on those fast, capable, and innovative firms whose technology it wants to access. Instead of waiting for every firm to “get it” and turn into “defense contractors”, let’s figure out how to better facilitate the involvement of everyone else.

Comments

  1. Kit - August 8, 2007 @ 12:50 am

    Jim, there is another perspective too – and I’m not saying that it is ultimately valid, just that it exists.

    How about the existing contractors “who get it” and “play the game” learning to facilitate the integration of these kinds of technologies?

    Most gaming engines can be purchased, and some are even Open. Swapping the “fantasy” skins for “combat” skins isn’t that difficult. Hell, the Army’s figure that one out: http://www.army.mil/fcsold/f2c2/index.html

    And, even NASA is pretty current in this regard: http://worldwind.arc.nasa.gov/

    But, back to this alternative perspective. It would seem to make more sense for these “modern” organizations to simply partner with a DoD-centric contractor who can facilitate the relationship.

    A certain contractor who I’m very familiar with is doing this exact tactic in pursuit of a large Navy/USMC opportunity that specifically states that every aspect of the solution must be COTS and at minimum TRLs. There’s no way the companies with the real solutions can market there warez in time, or to the customer without a “gorilla” in their corner.

    That said, I agree, the acquisition model must learn how to accommodate and provide opportunities for traditionally-commercial organizations. Obviously, as you mentioned, innovation is suffering. But, I would argue that this has more to do with Boeing, LM, NG, GD, Raytheon, et al. than anything else. The contract landscape simply tilts with regard to scale of awards.

    Anyway…just something else.

  2. Jim S - August 10, 2007 @ 5:37 pm

    Hey Kit, good points. I guess what I was really reacting to was the idea that “they need to figure it out if they are going to work with us” attitude. It is just so counterproductive.

    If you are in sourcing / acquisition / or whatever you want to call it, your number one priority should be getting good stuff for your customers. Saying essentially “screw em, it’s their problem if they can’t figure out our bureaucracy” stands in the way of getting the best results.

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