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Plug and Play: How Flexibility and Openness are Key to Acquiring Emerging Technologies

On October 14, experts from the Naval Postgraduate School and the defense innovation community shared their perspectives on what it takes for the Department of Defense to acquire emerging technologies.

One of the key takeaways was the importance of modular open systems architecture (MOSA), in which platforms or systems are designed separately from the technology, often software, that can operate on those platforms. Platforms take longer to develop and build, and they generally have a long service life. The technology that makes them lethal or gives them a competitive advantage, however, changes much more quickly.

Craft or components that have been designed with this open architecture, whether intentionally or not, remain useful because they are adaptable and updateable, in line with changing technologies that did not exist when they were built.

VADM (Ret) and Acquisition Chair Dave Lewis used examples from history as well as the present day to illustrate this point. Dive bombers were invented in the late 1930s, after most US carriers had been built. But aircraft carriers were – and remain – exemplars of flexible, open systems architecture. The best example of this is the Doolittle Raid of 1942. Lewis explained that “in four months the Navy figured out how to fly Army bombers off an aircraft carrier and conduct a land strike. Nobody ever said that was a requirement, and nobody could have imagined that could have been a requirement.” Just this year, he added, the USS Carl Vinson, a 38-year-old aircraft carrier, deployed with the cutting-edge technology of the F-35C, the most modern strike fighter in US inventory, as well as the CV-22 and E-2D.

Lewis ended by sharing thoughts on current innovation drivers for platforms. These include cloud and edge computing and clearly defined – and limited – interfaces. This idea of limited interfaces was reinforced later by Johnathan Mun, who gave the example of USB ports that can be used to connect any number of technologies.

Mike Madsen opened by talking about the 18 months he spent as an NPS student—one of his favorite assignments in the Air Force because he was able to work with and be exposed to some of the “big strategic thinkers” collected at NPS. His presentation walked through how DIU connects commercial innovators with DoD using approaches that allow industry to propose solutions to strategic problems rather than bidding on contracts with predetermined requirements. DIU pioneered the use of commercial solutions openings and frequently uses other transactions authority to get companies on contract with DoD. A large majority of these companies are non-traditional contractors and small businesses, with many being new to the DoD.

Madsen shared a story illustrating how the DIU approach creates real-time access to emerging technologies.  In this case, a commercial partner developed wearable health monitors for service members to solve the DIU-sponsored problem of non-battle troop injuries due to infectious diseases. This technology was ready to deploy when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and DoD pivoted to apply it to identify infected people up to 48 hours before symptoms appeared.

Chris Manuel shared his background as a retired chief warrant officer, with time serving with the special forces. He came to NPS to continue developing a solution he devised in Iraq to get better surveillance on the battlefield. His student project to transform the original 38-pound device into a small form factor ended up receiving $200 million in contracts. To create his prototype, he used rapid acquisition models like OTA and benefited from the expertise of his advisor who was then the Dean of Research.

Manuel left active duty and went to a startup, ultimately becoming a vice president of Sierra Nevada Corporation. But he returned to Monterey after “one of the professors at NPS invited me back to show other students and professors how to do the same thing that I did.”  

His perspective on what constitutes emerging technology is that it may not necessarily be new, but it is new to the DoD. Sometimes technology exists but gets used in a different way, or a need is met by technology pulled from adjacent markets.    

As Director of the Central Coast Tech Bridge, Manuel is focused on non-traditional partners, such as universities or small businesses, that may have good ideas that would otherwise never make it to DoD. In this way, the Tech Bridge mission is very similar to that of DIU, and it uses similar tools like OTAs, price challenges, and partnership intermediary agreements.

Manuel described the current project of creating a Talent Education Assessment Management System (TEAMS) for federal employees. This pilot uses AI to identify capability gaps in the workforce and is a collaborative venture with the National AI Institute and Harvard University.

Professor Johnathan Mun discussed technology that can help make the business case and calculate the ROI for acquiring or developing new high-risk technology, specifically AI and autonomous and divergent technology. He also took some time to define AI in contrast to other similar technologies such as machine learning, neural networks, natural language processing, and robotic process automation. During the Q&A portion of the webinar, panelists and attendees agreed that AI is often misunderstood, with more simple technologies like automation being considered as complex as AI.

Mun described how decision analytics can use AI and ML to calculate risk and ROI, using an example of the challenge of integrating new technology on a ship that requires structural changes such as cutting steel versus less costly modifications. These analytics demonstrate the efficiency of flexible ship design and MOSA discussed by VADM Lewis and others. This methodology can even be applied to calculate the total lifecycle cost of higher education – a research project Mun published in 2020, making a quantitative case for the impact of an NPS degree.

During the Q&A portion of the webinar, discussion covered a range of ideas, with some robust conversation about how DoD should generate requirements, the role of JCIDS in that process, and the kinds of contracts that lead to optimal flexibility—acknowledging that this flexibility or openness is crucial to accessing new technology in a timely fashion.

To hear the full conversation, watch the recorded webinar on YouTube.

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