House bill aims to bridge acquisition ‘valley of death’ in race to counter China

Xi Jinping speaks to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct. 28, 2017. (Ma Zhancheng/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

Two provisions in the latest version of a House defense bill seek to bridge the “valley of death,” the acquisition-process obstacles that can stop promising technology from getting to troops in the field. One would establish a five-year pilot program to more quickly identify such technologies, and the other would expand Navy programs that foster small-business innovation.

The provisions appear in a draft of the National Defense Authorization Act as marked up by the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. A copy of the draft was obtained by Defense One.

The bill tasks the Strategic Capabilities Office, or SCO, with identifying “critical cross-service operational needs” of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the combatant command that deals most directly with China. SCO will then designate a mission manager to work with the military’s various research arms and agencies to “develop and deliver solutions, including software and information technology solutions,” as well as to test and evaluate those solutions .

That’s a bit different from the way the Defense Department funds research and engineering now, along several specific research modernization areas in emerging technology, such as quantum computing, hypersonics, artificial intelligence, etc. The hope is that by aligning more closely with specific missions that the command is undertaking, the Department can better spend research money to deliver new technologies that answer precise needs.

The draft NDAA also includes $8.6 million, an increase of $5.0 million, to expand the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research, or SBIR, fund and the Small Business Technology Transfer and Small Business Technology Transfer program, or STTP, across the entire department. Why? The Navy “has demonstrated success” in mentoring companies that have reached the second phase of the SBIR funding, allowing them to better navigate the Defense Department’s various hurdles. In other words, the Navy has figured out a better way to get non-traditional companies needed funding outside of the lengthy competitive process that the military undertakes with other programs.

Both of those provisions could help the Defense Department with it’s long-standing “valley of death” problem.

“DOD has long noted the existence of a chasm between its science and technology community and its acquisition community that impedes technology transition from consistently occurring. This chasm, often referred to by department insiders as ‘the valley of death,’ exists because the acquisition community often requires a higher level of technology maturity than the science and technology community is willing to fund and develop,” notes a November 2015 Government Accountability Office report.

An updated GAO report from June 2019 found that the Department had made some progress addressing the gap but that problems remained, especially at the middle management level.

Martijn Rasser, senior fellow and director of the technology and national security program at the Center for a New American Security, said “The budget boost to expand Navy’s SBIR/STTR Transition Education Program department-wide should help to encourage smaller companies to pursue business with the Pentagon.” Reducing red tape and increasing the visibility and transparency of other transaction authorities will “make it easier for companies not well-versed in defense acquisitions to become vendors.”

However, he said, the draft is missing “specific measures to bridge the gap between development funding and becoming part of a program of record. That is the biggest challenge for start-ups that must manage cash flow and the demands for recurring revenue by their investors.”

Tara Murphy Dougherty, CEO of data analytics firm Govini, said “The Valley of Death has been just that for innovation: death. It is one the most significant barriers for smaller, innovative companies to partner with DoD, so any bridges that Congress can build across it through legislation is a welcome change,” But, she said, a narrow focus on the transition between science and technology and programs of record could “fail to capitalize on a critical opportunity to take an enterprise-wide approach and ensure attention is also put on much-needed, but otherwise left-behind cross-service capabilities.”

One individual who was familiar with the draft legislation described the SCO effort as “excellent” but also only a partial fix. “If there are other sections that also ensure these types of early capability development efforts can transition from [research, development, evaluation and testing] and initial operating concept to full-scale acquisition programs, then the valley of death just might get bridged.”


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