Tag Archives: USSOCOM

Special Operations Command Opens Doors for Small Firms

Special Operations Command



“Unique technology needs mean more opportunities for small businesses and startups to get their foot in the door with SOCOM, program managers have said.

The command has become known as an organization that has come up with some inventive ways to speed up traditional military acquisition regimes.

I would rather play a lot of blackjack than play roulette,” James “Hondo” Geurts, the chief of Special Operations Command’s acquisition, technology and logistics organization said recently.

The analogy spells out his philosophy when it comes to procuring new technologies special operators need to carry out their unique missions. Small, carefully placed bets on niche technologies have a better payoff, in the long run, than spending a lot of funding on any one big program, he said at this year’s National Defense Industrial Association’s Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict conference.

He wants to fund the technologies “that will transition quickly, then keep moving on,” he said.

“Things are changing so fast we don’t have three years to figure out what we want to do to support an operation. I’m happy if I have three months to figure out some of these things,” he said.

“We want new voices and new ideas,” Geurts said.

One practice SOCOM uses to acquire and discover new technologies is “technical experimentation” venues.

It invites technology developers to bring their works in progress to a hosted event three to four times per year. Each event has a specific theme. Special operators with experience in the field are on hand to assess the technology and provide feedback, which helps them to improve their products, said Kelly Stratton-Feix, director of acquisition agility at special operations forces’ acquisition, technology and logistics office. 

A request for information is posted through FedBizOpps, and advertised on LinkedIn and Facebook pages. Technology providers reply with a white paper, which is then reviewed by users such as components, theater commands and program offices. The users identify the experiments that they are interested in seeing, and the technology provider then receives an invitation to participate, she said. 

Technical experimentations “provide a win-win environment because technology providers can get insight into what’s important to the user early in the development cycle and we get to see technology early on, and often identify additional use-cases that haven’t been considered by the developer,” said Stratton-Feix. 

For those who cannot make it to one of these events, the command launched a web-based technology repository/scouting platform called “Vulcan.”  

This tool, which is searchable and accessible to any government employee, enables technology providers to quickly describe technologies they are offering and to upload supporting documentation to a secure, shared, searchable central database, Stratton-Feix said.

A registered Vulcan user who sees an interesting technology can issue a one-time use “token” to the technology provider who can then upload a scout card containing further information about the product.

“Vulcan is a work in progress,” she said. There are currently more than 1,500 scout cards loaded, with more than 700 registered government users, she added.

There are two other means to initiate contact with SOCOM.

One is the director of small business who provides guidance and information to industry and commercial partners on how to get their foot in the door with the command.

“This office should be one of a small business’ first contacts when initiating communication with USSOCOM,” Stratton-Feix recommended.

The technology and industry liaison office is another conduit to present information on capabilities to the various PEOs, directorates and others responsible for the research and development, acquisition, production and sustainment of materiel and technology platforms. It has a web portal where ideas can be submitted.  

Another high-profile effort to reach out to the larger technology community is SOFWERX, an unclassified, open collaboration facility designed to bring non-traditional partners from industry, academia and the government together to work on the command’s most challenging problems.    

The building located in Tampa’s historic Ybor City district was intentionally chosen so those wanting to collaborate with SOCOM didn’t need to go through onerous security checkpoints at nearby MacDill Air Force Base, Florida, where SOCOM headquarters is found.  

The facility, and a nearby workshop known as DirtyWerx, conduct design thinking sessions, technology sprints, rapid prototyping and other events with government, academia and innovators in the commercial marketplace. It is also the central node in the command’s efforts to push advanced manufacturing and 3D printing technology to operational units, Stratton-Feix said.

Geurts warned that SOFWERX is not intended to be a “bypass” facility to get around traditional ways for the command to acquire technology. It is intended to be “way left” of that process, he said.

Along with these facilities, events and web portals, SOCOM employs some contract vehicles to speed up the traditional acquisition process, which is normally subject to the time-consuming Federal Acquisition Regulation regime.  

“Velocity is our competitive advantage,” Geurts said. “That is what we bring to the fight,” he added, speaking of the command’s acquisition enterprise.

He returned to the roulette analogy. The four services spend a lot of time writing requirements then they “throw the ball on the wheel and let it ride.”

Cooperative research and development agreements (CRADA) have been used by the military to provide some seed money to potential vendors and kick start technology development.

The command established ways to make that process even more streamlined by creating an “Overarching CRADA,” which has already been signed by Geurts. If firms find the CRADA acceptable they simply add their corporate information and sign the document.

“This process now allows for [Overarching CRADAs] to be established in weeks to months compared to the year-long traditional process,” Stratton-Feix said. 

In addition, CRADA partners can now enter in individual work plans with any of the command’s program executive offices or directorates. There are currently 156 CRADAs and 10 active individual work plans with several more in the works, the command said.

SOCOM must comply with the same statutory and regulatory measures required of the military departments. However, the SOF AT&L team “aggressively utilizes the inherent freedom and flexibility of the DoD 5000 series of directives and instructions by streamlining processes and tailoring documentation in developing and managing SOF-peculiar programs,” said Stratton-Feix.

That directive includes such vehicles as “urgent operational needs” and “immediate war fighter needs,” which allows for more rapid technology acquisition, as long as solutions are not developmental and can be acquired off the shelf with few changes.

Other transaction authorities, or OTAs, allow in certain circumstances for program managers to go outside traditional contracts to rapidly acquire prototypes and forgo FAR requirements as long as the agreement is with a “nontraditional defense contractor” and there is some cost-sharing, as the regulations stated.   

“Non-FAR contracts are a great device but not a panacea,” Geurts said.

Geurts wants small businesses and startups to use these various portals to kick off the process of putting their ideas and products in front of SOCOM. 

He meets regularly with vendors, but “don’t come selling me a widget,” he warned. He wants to hear from potential suppliers when they are having a hard time with the process, or if they have ideas on how the command can be a better customer.

“What keeps me up at night is somebody has an idea that can’t get to me,” he said.”




U.S. Special Operations Command – A Pleasure to Do Business With Top Professionals


SOF-USSOCOM-Airborne-BadgeSpecial Note:  I had the pleasure of doing business with the US Joint Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) when a small company I supported designed, procured and installed General Schwarzkopf’s video conferencing system on the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System (JWICS).

I negotiated with a contracting officer who wore fatigues and who had just returned from a mission in the Middle East.  He was a professional, tough but fair negotiator. Our contract was in hand within a week after negotiations were concluded at the Tampa SOCOM HQ. 

Our billings were paid within two days after receipt of our invoice and the operations at the base were extraordinarily impressive among a group of highly trained and dedicated tri-service military personnel.  Ken

Something Special About Doing Business with SOCOM

“National Defense Magazine”

“There is a reason why many defense contractors consider U.S. Special Operations Command a dream customer. SOCOM knows what it wants, and it moves quickly to get it. It follows the same federal procurement regulations as the conventional branches of the military, but its acquisitions move faster in large measure because it is smaller, controls its own budget and has a leaner bureaucracy.

With the Defense Department now focused on technological innovation in the military — or the lack thereof — SOCOM might offer some useful lessons, experts said.

Special operations equipment is procured by the office of acquisition, technology and logistics. SOF AT&L over time has fine-tuned its acquisition “best practices” and these are shaped by the unique missions of SOF units.

To understand this, consider how the conventional Army acquires its “soldier systems” — that is everything a soldier wears, shoots or carries, from boots and T-shirts to tactical radios and night-vision goggles.

Compared to how the regular Army buys equipment, special operations forces could not be more different. Designing and procuring a soldier system is a complex challenge, especially for the general purpose Army that must support a huge force of nearly a million soldiers.

As Andrew Fowler, vice president and general manager at Bates Footwear describes it, the Army tries to develop the “best products that can fit the broad spectrum of hundreds of thousands of men and women in uniform to execute a wide range of tasks.”

A problem for the Army is that the defense acquisition process was designed for major weapon systems and is not well suited to the soldier system portfolio that has multiple components that have to be customized for particular missions. From a budgetary standpoint, the soldier “system” is more of a laundry list of items needed.

Additionally, the Army’s own practices make it difficult to buy the most innovative equipment. Many companies are hesitant to develop products for the Army because, unlike SOCOM, it places a greater focus on vendor competition and getting the lowest price than on buying the best product available. As one industry executive explained, the conventional force can only contract something that everyone could make; that way, it would get the most bidders, who would compete for the contract at the lowest price. “It ends up being more of a lowest common denominator dynamic.”

The practice of choosing the lowest-cost products, known as lowest price, technically acceptable, or LPTA, is standard when buying soldier systems. These heavily competed contracts have drawbacks, however, such as the possibility that the Army might be buying subpar products.

These issues are less problematic for SOCOM, which is only responsible for procuring “special operations peculiar” items, that is, items for which there is no service common requirement. If mission-specific needs are identified by operators in the field, SOCOM will adopt readily available commercial off-the-shelf or service-provided solutions even if they don’t fully meet the operator’s needs. “In some cases, a capability at 70 to 80 percent is acceptable when no current capability is in the field,” said Col. Joe Capobianco, SOF warrior’s program executive officer.

A SOCOM spokesman explained that operators in the field first identify equipment requirements. “These gaps are validated at the highest levels within the command and multiple technology solutions are analyzed as potential solutions to bridge gaps,” he told National Defense. “SOCOM will look at all currently available options including commercial-off-the-shelf solutions and items already fielded within the conventional services. Currently, SOCOM has SOF unique requirements across all portfolios to address niche requirements for individual equipment, survival, tactical, medical, weapons and vehicle systems.”

The command has its own requirements validation process, called Special Operation Forces Capabilities Integration and Development System.

SOCOM spends about $3 billion a year on equipment, compared to $14 billion by the U.S. Army. Its relatively small size and independent procurement authority gives SOCOM a distinct advantage. It can get things done fast. In the conventional force, competing priorities result in months, if not years, of bureaucratic churn as assumptions are questioned, risks are avoided and decisions are constantly reevaluated. For SOF, there’s no guesswork involved in determining the need; it has already been identified by operators in the field. The task then is to find the right solution as efficiently and expediently as possible.

Bob Mabry, special operations relationship manager at Battelle, said in a January National Defense article: “That’s exactly what the operational forces want. They want something that works. They want it now, and they want you out of the way.”

To industry representatives who are new to working with SOF, the rate at which things progress can be surprising. In mid-2006, officials from SOF and Bates Footwear connected at one of the hundreds of industry outreach events SOF AT&L attends each year. Ron Woznick, a Bates sales executive at Wolverine Worldwide, recalled that SOCOM was interested in a boot for “high-alpine, high-abrasion environments” like Tora Bora, Afghanistan, one of Osama bin Laden’s first suspected hideouts. A partnership between SOF, Bates, Wolverine and a sister company called Merrell (whose products were already being used by SOF) resulted in a completely new, American-made boot just over a year later. A contract of $1.8 million for 8,400 pairs of mountain footwear was awarded in August 2007. By May the following year, all 16,800 boots, named for the region they were needed for, were produced, delivered and fielded. It was the fastest move from an identified solution to an awarded contract Woznick had ever seen. “Decisions were made very quickly,” he said. They were willing to come to terms with trade-offs in order to get what they needed.

The story of the Tora Bora boot is not unique. It illustrates SOF AT&L’s key acquisition principles: Deliver capabilities to the user expeditiously, exploit proven techniques and methods, keep warfighters involved throughout the process, take risk and manage it, noted David Costello, head of the industry group Warrior Protection and Readiness Coalition.

When programs do fail or get terminated, the majority of the time that occurs early during developmental activities or combat evaluations, said the SOCOM spokesman. “If there are failures, the focus is on making that happen early, before a lot of resources are put against the effort. Once an effort has matured to a ‘project or program’ status, rarely are efforts canceled.”

Close communication between the product development team and the end users is another way SOF AT&L takes advantage of its small size and tight networks. In the case of the Tora Bora boot, SOF acquisition professionals were able to make quick decisions on trade-offs because operators were testing the product in the field and delivering direct feedback, which was then analyzed and applied to decisions.

Building relationships and expanding its network of partners is another area of emphasis at SOF AT&L. A recent National Defense article discussed the introduction of freeze-dried plasma to the SOF medical kit — a technology the French and Germans were already using by the time the Food and Drug Administration approved its use for SOF in 2012.

SOF AT&L has also increased its use of collaborative vehicles to leverage early partnerships with industry, academia and other government agencies. In 2014 it invested more than double the funds that the Defense Department did in Small Business Innovation Research, which resulted in new technologies like ruggedized digital cameras and miniature multi-band radar beacons.

In the conventional Army, the pressure to follow procedure and avoid risk is real. Acquisition professionals have become so bound to the processes that the Defense Department has had to rethink its guidance materials to make them broader in the hopes that they would empower the acquisition workforce to take things into its own hands and use the guidance as just that — guidance — instead of a checklist of actions.

Policy changes are only as effective as their subjects’ ability to implement them, though, and the bigger the bureaucracy, the slower the change. In the Army’s case, even when the authority exists to use more streamlined approaches for procuring soldier system components, applying that authority required so much justification that it is ultimately easier and faster to take the more traditional path, noted a 2014 study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Another advantage that SOCOM has when buying equipment is the prestige and potential long-term opportunities associated with being a SOCOM supplier. “I’m not going to keep my factory running on SOF business,” said a senior industry official on the condition of anonymity, “but it’s the ultimate platform for innovation and grounding your brand [by] working with the most demanding customers.”

Direct input from the warfighter throughout the procurement process creates an acquisition culture of mutual accountability, said Oakley Director of Military Sales Erick Poston. “We pretty much get the direct input, which [is] fantastic and we would have it no other way, but it also comes with a responsibility — you have to build the best stuff.”

Trusting relationships are essential in the military procurement business, industry executives said. “They tell you exactly what is right and wrong with your product and with those absolute facts, you can figure out how to make it better,” said Fowler. “That’s very gratifying and encourages us to continue the relationship with them.”

But there is such a thing as too much access. Direct operator input is one of the most valued aspects of working with SOF, but it can be challenging. “They’re the alpha males of the alpha males,” said one industry representative whose company has worked with both SOF and the Army for decades. Even when a piece of kit undergoes a simple upgrade, end users from each service want the products to be service-specific. “We’re Navy and we’re blue; we’re Army and we’re green,” he said. It is no different with SOF.”