Accelerating SOF Acquisition through Industry Partnering

From Armor & Mobility, May/June 2019 Issue

James H. Smith is the Acquisition Executive, U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. He is responsible for all special operations forces acquisition, technology and logistics.

Mr. Smith graduated from the U.S. Military Academy in 1986 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry. He served initially with the Third Infantry Division in Kitzingen, Germany, as Bradley Platoon Leader, Heavy Mortar Platoon Leader and Company Executive Officer. He then served as the Second Brigade’s Assistant Operations Officer and Rifle Company Commander in Fifth Battalion, 21st Infantry Regiment of the Seventh Infantry Division (Light). Following receipt of a Master of Science degree in 1995, he served as Associate Professor in the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering and as Battalion Executive Officer of First Battalion, First Infantry Regiment at the U.S. Military Academy.

His acquisition assignments include Chief, Firepower Division, Combat Developments Directorate, U.S. Army Infantry Center; Assistant Product Manager, Soldier Power; Deputy Technology Product Manager, Objective Force Warrior; Chief, Interoperability, Headquarters Department of the Army G8; Product Manager, Soldier Sensors and Lasers, Program Executive Office Soldier; and Program Executive 44 Officer, Special Operations Forces Warrior Systems, followed by Military Deputy to the U.S. Special Operations Command Acquisition Executive. Prior to his current assignment, he was the Deputy Director for Acquisition, Headquarters USSOCOM.

Mr. Smith is a graduate of the Infantry Officer Basic and Advanced Courses, the U.S. Army Command Staff College, the U.S. Army War College and the Executive Program Manager’s Course. He is registered as a Professional Engineer in Virginia.

Mr. Smith retired from active duty in 2013. Immediately upon his military retirement, he was appointed to the Senior Executive Service and selected to serve as the Deputy Director for Acquisition, Special Operations Research, Development and Acquisition Center, USSOCOM, MacDill AFB.

A&M: This year’s SOFIC theme is “Accelerating SOF Innovation.” What was the inspiration behind this theme, and what are you hoping that industry will take away from this year’s conference?

Mr. Smith: We unabashedly took this theme from the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). The NDS defines our strategic approach to reform the department and build a more lethal force. At the intersection of these two is the direction to accelerate the cycle of innovation. The NDS demands innovation not only internally to streamline rapid, iterative approaches, but also to harness and protect the national security innovation base by providing industry with predictability.

Also, we continue to streamline processes so that new entrants and small-scale vendors can provide cutting-edge technologies. Ultimately, this is why we invest so much time and energy into SOFIC. It is our premier event to communicate our operators’ requirements to our industry partners, to reinforce existing relationships and build new ones. Our goal for this SOFIC is for industry to see the deliberate steps we are taking within SOF acquisition to be more agile and rapid. In concert, we need our industry partners to streamline their internal business processes so together we can address the challenges of near-peer competition. To us, a unique aspect of the SOFIC week is that it is more than a series of presentations by government to industry. We want to leverage the immense talent and diversity of thought that attends and encourage multi-nodal conversations. Not only are we communicating our requirements, but industry is sharing their capabilities with us and, ideally, industry is also discovering new opportunities with each other.

A&M: USSOCOM’s FY20 budget request shows an increase in Congressional funding for USSOCOM’s Research and Development program, what are USSOCOM’s R&D priorities within the Science and Technology directorate? How can industry contribute to these priorities?

Mr. Smith: USSOCOM has identified six technology focus areas in line with the NDS direction: next generation Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR); next generation mobility; precision strike systems and next generation effects; hyper enabling the operator; data and networks and bio-technologies.

    • For next generation ISR we are looking to find alternatives to our current reliance on airborne ISR for finding and locating targets of interest. There are numerous opportunities for industry to partner: from space-based sensors; to “finding and locating” a target at their digital address in the cyber domain; to small, swarming, survivable sensors.
    • For next generation mobility, industry can provide better survivability for our platforms to allow for operations in denied or contested environments by reducing our signature and avoiding detection by threat systems.
      For precision fires and effects, our operators require munitions that can be launched by the individual or small team, loiter until a target presents itself, hit that target precisely with no collateral damage to nearby personnel or infrastructure and to have the ability to be pulled off target and safely terminated if the situation in the target area changes.
    • For hyper-enabling the operator, we are pursuing technologies that will provide our operators at the edge – those with limited bandwidth and computing power – with a cognitive advantage by applying man-machine teaming technologies.
    • For data and networks, we need mobile and expeditionary hardware, software and infrastructure to improve operational cohesion in denied or degraded electromagnetic spectrum environments.
  • Finally, for bio-technologies, we want to improve the SOF operator’s mission effectiveness, resilience, physical and cognitive performance, reduce susceptibility to injury, and assist with faster return to duty by rapidly delivering medical technologies and procedures to the field in order to improve, preserve, and restore SOF operators.

A&M: There’s always the misperception that USSOCOM has “special” acquisition authorities that the military services don’t because it is a combatant command. How do you go about addressing these misperceptions?

Mr. Smith: USSOCOM has no special acquisition authorities other than the unique authority of the Combatant Commander to acquire special operations-peculiar equipment and services. In fact, USSOCOM has fewer authorities than the military services because Congress or the Secretary of Defense (SECDEF) provides authorities directly to the Secretary of Defense and the military departments. We’ll often have to pursue those authorities as a separate action.

It’s important that our industry partners understand the USSOCOM acquisition environment. At times, they may assume we can ignore what is written in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), or Financial Management Regulation, or the Acquisition Management System. We can’t. Conversely, I’ve noticed that some partners assume we have budget flexibility on par with the military services. We don’t. With only 2% of the DoD budget, the opportunities to realign or reprogram funds are actually far more limited than our Service counterparts. Therefore, together we need to execute transparent, predictable and fiscally prudent programs.

A&M: At SOCOM you’ve had acquisition successes with congressionally approved authorities. Can you shed any light on how SOCOM has used some of these authorities to accelerate SOF innovation?

Mr. Smith: Congress and SECDEF have sent a clear message that they expect us to be more agile and they’ve backed that message up with legislation and policies to enable us to go faster. Other Transaction Agreements (OTAs) are a great example that have been around for years and seen a great deal more use lately. We’re engaging in significantly more OTA’s than we have in the past and, in many cases, we’re using the OTA expertise that exists in the Services to raise our own expertise.

I am very enthused by the potential of Middle Tier Acquisitions (MTAs). To me, this is the perfect authority for many, if not most, USSOCOM acquisition efforts. Essentially, MTA’s allow us to move much faster when we rapidly prototype a technology that we can introduce to the field within a certain time period or when we can rapidly field the entire production run within a certain time period. What really matters is how you string these authorities together into a rapid acquisition strategy. A great example is the Disrupter Event we’re hosting at SOFIC. We leveraged another authority, our Partnership Intermediary Agreement (PIA), as a platform to ask industry to submit white papers in three technology areas: The hyper-enabled operator, data and networks and next generation ISR. Our government team reviewed those proposals and invited several to provide oral briefs at SOFIC. From there, we intend to award contracts, FAR-based or non FAR-based, with some of the authorities mentioned earlier.

A&M: How do you see the Hyper-Enabled Operator concept accelerating innovation within the USSOCOM enterprise? How do you see it driving industry innovation?

Mr. Smith: Hyper enabling the operator for us is specific to applying technology to the dismounted special operations professional operating at the edge in a contested or denied environment. These technologies will enhance the operator’s cognition by increasing situational awareness, reducing cognitive load, and accelerating decision making. This line of effort takes many of the most impactful technologies being discussed throughout industry today, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, human-machine teaming, cloud computing and edge computing, and applies them to our most disadvantaged user. The enabling technologies include data assets, adaptive and flexible sensors, scalable tactical communications and embedded algorithms. It’s a great challenge and, we believe, an important challenge.

Our operators are the most lethal warriors on the planet but as we prepare for competition against near peers, we need to enable our operators to be just as effective in the information space. The combatant with superior understanding of his or her environment will dominate future competition short of conflict. We are optimistic that our hyper-enabled operator efforts will attract the attention of a large variety of industry partners, traditional and non-traditional, but also those that see the potential for opportunities to transition the technologies we’re interested in to the commercial space.

A&M: What advice do you have for someone who is new to SOFIC and new to doing business with USSOCOM?

Mr. Smith: There are many opportunities for new attendees to get involved. What’s most exciting to me are the connections made during SOFIC are connections which are forged on the foundational common interest of supporting SOF and accelerating SOF innovation.

I believe you shouldn’t attend SOFIC expecting to sit in an auditorium and passively listen to keynote speakers and panels: SOFIC is a two-way conversation. There are multiple direct engagement opportunities throughout the week with our Program Executive Officers, our Director for Science and Technology and our Director for Logistics, to name a few. I have an amazing team of military and acquisition professionals and I want you to get to know them.

There are a lot of people, attendees and SOCOM personnel alike, who want to have two-way conversations. I advise my team, “you can’t let SOFIC happen to you, you have to have a plan to get the most out of the week.” Make it a goal to network, but also take some time to enjoy what the Tampa Bay area has to offer. Tampa is a great city and USSOCOM is grateful SOFIC is held downtown at such a great venue.