Magazine article National Defense

Something Special about Doing Business with SOCOM

Magazine article National Defense

Something Special about Doing Business with SOCOM

Article excerpt

* 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. …

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