Facilitating Force Modernization through Targeted Procurement

Mr. James Smith
Acquisition Executive
U.S. Special Operations Command

From Armor & Mobility, May 2021

Armor & Mobility spoke with Mr. Jim Smith, Acquisition Executive for U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), MacDill Air Force Base, FL, regarding some of USSOCOM’s targeted procurement focus efforts in Special Operations Forces (SOF) acquisition, technology and logistics.

A&M: As a new presidential administration and new defense secretary settle in, what are some key SOF AT&L priorities for keeping USSOCOM operations potent?

Mr. Smith: When he took command of U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), Gen. Richard Clarke provided written guidance on the command’s modernization focus areas. For the most part, these have remained very consistent, but I’ll provide some context as we’ve matured our approach to each modernization area to maintain SOF’s sustained competitive advantages. First, Gen. Clarke has set the vision that USSOCOM will be an AI-enabled command. AI and all of its derivatives – machine learning, human-machine teaming, automation, etc. – underpin and enhance each of our six focus areas, which include next generation intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); next generation mobility; precision effects; data and networks; hyper-enabled operator; and biotechnologies.

Next generation ISR reflects the command’s continued requirement to find, fix and exploit targets of interest in a contested environment where we may not dominate the airspace or the electro-magnetic space. We are looking for capabilities in the cyber domain and the space domain as well as in small, tactical unmanned autonomous systems and sensors. Next generation mobility focuses on our need to ensure our current platforms are survivable and can gain access in contested environments. We’ve made a large investment in our fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft as well as surface and sub-surface maritime vessels. We need to ensure these platforms have the ability to penetrate and survive, not only in competition, but also in conflict.

The precision effects focus area applies broadly to weapons as well as the electro-magnetic domain and messaging and counter-messaging. We’re making great progress with individual weapons and missiles. We have a growing interest to understand and dominate the electro-magnetic spectrum our operators will need to maneuver within when they are on the field with peer competitors. Finally, we need to be able to provide information on the internet that supports our operations and counter false messaging from our adversaries in a timely and precise fashion. Our focus on data and networks covers our software and hardware efforts to provide the appropriate information reliably and securely across the force. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are unique in the amount of information we push to the “edge” of the battlespace – defined in this case as the individual’s or small team’s need to have access to rich information, such as full-motion video, in the remote and austere environments they operate in. Further, the operator must have confidence that their communications are assured, reliable and secure even on contested terrain.

Hyper-enabled operator strives to provide that “edge” operator with cognitive overmatch. The operator already contends with an immense amount of data from drones, sensors, partnered forces and others. Our intent is to turn that data into decision quality information and present the information to the operator in a manner that allows them to make decisions in a tactical environment. In biotechnologies, we seek to improve the performance and well-being of the operator. This focus area is tightly linked with the USSOCOM’s Preservation of the Force and Family initiative to ensure the operator has the mental, physical and spiritual capacity to accomplish their mission throughout their long career.
Finally, for the first time, we have published our Science and Technology (S&T) priorities. While the six modernization focus areas describe our near-term requirements, the S&T priorities describe our research and development investment areas for the longer term – but “longer term” for SOF is really only the next 3-7 years. Our S&T priorities are special communications, tailorable lethality, electronic warfare, human performance optimization and data-enabled SOF.

A&M: From a SOF equipment and services challenge perspective, what are some teaming efforts AT&L is utilizing to maximize mission success?

Mr. Smith: Recently our Marine Special Operations Commander asked us to conduct an evaluation of a precision missile employed from a light vehicle. This evaluation was highly successful leading to its recent effective use in combat. The speed of this deployment was enabled by the vision of our Marine component, the support of the Marine Corps and agile adaptation of acquisition authorities by our Program Executive Office-SOF Warrior. They are actively pursuing more capable missiles that are domestically produced and affordable. Our goal is to extend this program across the USSOCOM enterprise to include employment by our Maritime component from a surface vessel.

Further on the horizon is our Dry Combat Submersible (DCS) Block II. We are conducting pre-program risk reduction activities to clarify the maturity of the technologies and fully understand the cost and schedule requirements. While we don’t plan to award a development contract until 2023 or 2024, there will be opportunities to help us with these pre-program activities. I am excited about our PEO-Maritime using digital engineering and modeling in partnership with the Navy to fully understand risks and opportunities, as well as viewing the DCS Block II acquisition strategy as software-defined and hardware-enabled.
SOF AT&L manages just over 80 official acquisition programs but, on any given day, we’re managing more than 300 projects, rapid requirements, operational needs, partnered equipping efforts or foreign military sales. I’m very proud of SOF acquisition working in collaboration with our partners to provide the capabilities required to enable SOF operators and our allies and partnered forces.

A&M: How are you reaching out to non-traditional industry partners to compete on SOF contracting opportunities?

Mr. Smith: We had an AI expert visit the command and I asked him, if industry claims were true that AI was ‘shovel ready,’ why weren’t AI vendors knocking down my door? He answered, “Where is your door?” That response has caused us to rethink how we reach out to our industry partners – whether new to USSOCOM or established, or small business or large, or non-traditional/commercial or defense sector. During the last year especially, we’ve expanded our outreach by hosting bi-monthly virtual town halls for these partners. And we have other great “doorways.”

For starters, we have Engage SOF or eSOF. This is our cloud-based website for vendors to present proposals and receive feedback. We launched eSOF in September 2020, and to date we’ve had 140 submissions from 120 unique companies. eSOF allows vendors to submit more content than our previous tool allowed, and enables vendors to track their proposal until we provide feedback. We also host a tech scout website for the entire government called Vulcan-SOF. Vulcan allows vendors to provide scout cards – information on their product – for government personnel to review, comment on and assess. It has spread from its origins in SOF to the Department of Defense to use throughout the government. Today there are over 15,000 government users – 6,500 new users last year – with access to more than 8,000 scout cards. Finally, we have our SOFWERX platform which has 40,000 existing members in their ecosystem and hosted over 20 collaboration and assessment events this year. We’ve experienced a 70% increase in responses when we request information or proposals via our SOFWERX ecosystem and sam.gov as compared to posting on sam.gov only. We believe our outreach efforts are effective.
However, when you add our other “doorways” for Technology Experimentation events, Broad Area Announcements and contract opportunities on sam.gov, maybe we have too many. We’ve surmised that we might be confusing industry. So we developed the “foyer” concept – a one-stop website that will provide a single doorway for SOF acquisition. This site will allow vendors to easily review the engagement opportunities available and help find the right one for them.

A&M: In terms of meeting agile acquisition expectations, how is SOF AT&L working to better support the nation’s special operators across austere global environments?

Mr. Smith: The outcomes and results of the SOF acquisition approach are something I am very proud of – especially our daily contribution to supporting our nation’s special operators. Our workforce has demonstrated the agility to adopt and adapt the many acquisition tools authorized for our use by Congress and the Department of Defense. We have leveraged Other Transaction Agreements (OTA) for some of our most critical acquisitions such as Radio Frequency Counter Measures and Armed Overwatch. Last year we executed 40 OTAs. That’s nearly six times the number we did in 2019 and 20 times the number of OTAs we executed in 2018. We were also early adopters of the Commercial Solutions Opening Pilot and again used it on two important programs – our Hyper-Enabled Operator project and Mission Command System/Common Operating Picture. Last year Congress authorized us to pursue a pilot to accelerate Small Business Innovation Research awards by leveraging our SOFWERX platform. What was the result? A 200% increase in non-traditional vendors and a 60% reduction in the time to deliver a prototype.

What makes SOF acquisition unique is our adoption of the culture and attributes of the enterprise we support. We adopt the sense of urgency associated with a combatant command and, in particular, the SOF community. We adopt our SOF commanders’ approach to risks and opportunities. But what I’ve been reflecting the most on recently is our adoption of SOF’s unique dichotomy of full-spectrum agility with precision effects – operational commanders are required to provide precise deter, de-escalate and defeat options across the full range from competition to conflict. Likewise, acquisition operations need to be both agile and precise. As we consider strategic competition, my priority for our acquisition workforce remains to ensure they have the training and experience to employ a wide variety of acquisition and contracting strategies to achieve the precise effect required by our operators.