The United States government is clamoring for commercial companies to engage in the effort to out-innovate global competitors. When the most innovative companies compete to deliver the best technology, the government is empowered to serve the public with excellence and efficiency.

Nowhere is the need for commercial innovation more compelling than in the Department of Defense. In its 2019 Digital Modernization Strategy, DoD was emphatic that “Innovation is a key element of future readiness.” It follows that anything that would discourage innovation poses a serious risk to national security.

“[Innovation] is essential to preserving and expanding U.S. military competitive advantage in the face of near-peer competition and asymmetric threats,” DoD acknowledged. “[P]reserving and expanding our military advantage depends on our ability to deliver technology faster than our adversaries and the agility of our enterprise to adapt our way of fighting to the potential advantages of innovative technology.” These truisms should be guiding principles for DoD’s acquisition of commercial capabilities.

Investment and opportunity

A vast vendor ecosystem able to deliver a variety of foundational, innovative commercial technologies to the war fighter is clearly essential to DoD’s mission. Private-sector innovation, driven by investments in research and development, far outstrips governments’ ability to match.

Robust competition is paramount to maintaining the aggressive R&D spending necessary to deliver innovative solutions to real-world challenges. Companies risk such rich R&D investment for the promise of a fair shot at financial return. Absent opportunity in the federal market, innovative companies have no choice but to seek greener fields.

Enhancing collaboration between DoD and Industry

In the recently signed National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal 2020, both the White House and Congress clearly signaled their support for greater partnership between DoD and commercial enterprises. In their joint statement on the final NDAA conference report, the chairmen and ranking members of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees indicated that one of the primary purposes of the NDAA, after protecting our national defense and caring for our military and their families, is to reform and improve “the business side of the Pentagon.” Some noteworthy provisions that address that priority include requirements for DoD to:

  • Create special pathways for the rapid acquisition of software applications (and upgrades);
  • Improve market research for commercial products and services acquisitions;
  • Designate test networks for testing and accreditation of cybersecurity capabilities; and
  • Establish a pilot program for DoD and third parties to create “alpha contracting teams” to better define technical requirements for complex procurements.

These crucial elements, along with other sections aimed at enhancing the technical proficiency and continuous improvement of the DoD workforce, will enable the Pentagon to better utilize innovative commercial technologies and operate more like a commercial enterprise. Improving the business side of the Pentagon means DoD must continue to develop stronger relationships with the best American business has to offer — our creative, nimble commercial companies that will provide the innovative products and services to meet DoD’s evolving needs.

Delivering for the common defense

DoD is an enormous enterprise. As noted in its digital roadmap, “If the department were a corporation, it would be at the top of the Fortune 100. No organization has a broader mission or scope … The department also conducts major activities in almost every business area. These vary from acquisitions to command and control, global logistics, health and medical care, intelligence, space operations, facilities management and more — each with critical IT and cybersecurity dependencies.”

Industry is primed to respond to the department’s immense and critical requirements with a broad ecosystem brimming with innovative ideas and the infrastructure to deliver. Sustained fair competition, possible only with transparency and oversight, encourages innovation, better positioning U.S. companies against international rivals and better supplying the war fighter with the critical capabilities to defend the nation. This year’s NDAA clearly recognizes these needs and will ensure that DoD partners effectively, in 2020 and beyond, with America’s best and brightest emerging technology companies to help the military achieve its vital mission.

John Wood is the CEO of Telos, a cybersecurity firm, and the chair of the Alliance for Digital Innovation. ADI serves as a unified voice for commercial innovators with a mission of ensuring the public sector benefits from existing and emerging commercial technologies.

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