Before military top brass and tech-savvy soldiers head to the AFCEA Army Signal Conference in Springfield, Virginia, this week, PCMag spoke with Lt. Gen. John R. (Bob) Wood, EVP of the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association, to learn more about the US Army's latest strategies for emerging IT capabilities.
General Wood served as an officer in the US Army for over 36 years, including tours of duty in Korea, Bosnia, and Desert Storm during the Gulf War. We were curious to find out how the Army is pivoting its tech strategy, what they're looking for in new partners, who will be attending the conference this week, and how bright tech startups can apply to support the military in 2018 and beyond.
Here are edited and condensed excerpts from our conversation.
General Wood, looking back on your long and celebrated career in the military, can you give us a 30,000-foot view on how you saw technology change war zones? My best example is the introduction of GPS to the Army forces deploying to Desert Storm. I commanded a Field Artillery battalion heading for the sands of Saudi Arabia. A field artillery unit depends on accurate geographic information to deliver accurate fires. A desert is a sea of sand with few real geographic features to use as reference. Traditional survey in the desert is far too slow and too labor intensive to match the speed of movement across vast distances. We had practiced all our conventional methods but faced the deployment with a certain amount of dread.
Literally the week before we deployed, they issued key leaders something we called "SLGR," which were first generation GPS receivers. Suddenly, if we could see three satellites with our devices—of a possible four in the constellation at that time—we could accurately plot our locations in the desert with adequate accuracy to achieve accurate artillery fires.
GPS usage during battle zones in the Saudi desert puts civilian road warrior trips into perspective. It was a game changer for us. We spent the months of [Operation] Desert Shield learning how to best use this new technology to allow speed of movement and massed artillery fires. Needless to say, we successfully used this technology as part of the "Left Hook" portion of the attack into Iraq. When we asked Iraqi prisoners why they were so surprised by our operational movements, we repeatedly heard them say they believed no forces could navigate quickly and successfully across these vast spaces.
Bet you wish you could have that level of technology today. I took my "SLGR" home in my personal baggage and was finally convinced to reluctantly return it to the government. This technology was a life saver for my soldiers and my unit.
Let's cut to your role today, as EVP of AFCEA. Can you give us some background on its founding post-WWII? Our founder was David Sarnoff, who also helped establish Radio Corporation of America (RCA). His early interest in radio technologies and communications, along with his work building early US networks, showed him the importance of cooperation between government, industry, and academia. During WWII, as a member of Eisenhower's staff, he also saw this synergy benefitting the US military in the war effort. Right after the war, in an effort to keep this relationship strong, active, and supporting national security, he helped found AFCEA.
What's your mission today? Our mission remains to promote the ethical conversation between industry, government, and academia on key subjects in what's known as C4I: Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, and—now the addition of the "fifth C"—Cybersecurity, all important issues to the military, intelligence, and homeland security communities.
What's on the conference agenda? Senior Army and other DoD speakers, along with several industry CEOs will deliver keynotes while multiple panels of both military and business experts will address technical, acquisition, and strategic topics relevant to the Army's modernization of its command and control networks and supporting hardware, software, and procurement methods. Top supporting sponsors include AT&T, Fortinet, and Harris.
But attendance and participation isn't just limited to the big tech giants? Not at all, the small business sponsor is BugCrowd and small business has a central role in every aspect of the event in presentation of new solutions, in discussion of acquisition hurdles, in demonstration of existing technologies.
Let's dig into the purpose behind this week's event. Give us your perspective. Lt. Gen Bruce T. Crawford, the Army's CIO, came to AFCEA and asked for our assistance organizing key industry participants in a conversation with his top leaders. This is in keeping with the Army's sincere interest to involve industry early and often in the modernization of its network. We have done this in the coming event. There is much to discuss. For the last year, the Army has been intensely reviewing the network and communication systems it has and the one it truly needs to meet the demands of a new Army strategy. This strategy moves the Army away from fixed forward bases and returns to austere environments, expeditionary operations, and near peer threats.
We reported on Lt. Gen Bruce T. Crawford's keynote speech in 2016 while writing about US Army Cyber Command in Augusta, GA. It's clear emerging tech is a crucial issue for the military. LTG Bruce Crawford sees the Army's new network structure characterized by flat architecture, speed, mobility, and protection. The Army seeks to incorporate state-of-the art capabilities and, to do so, it must overhaul its relationship with technology providers. General Crawford emphasizes that the Army cannot reach its objective network design without commercial industry really understanding what the Army is trying to accomplish. He is looking for ways to move the commercial sector closer to users to gain better understanding of how operators interact with products.
As a result, the Army is pivoting on its IT strategy, particularly around "adapt and buy" (as opposed to managed services with major providers, bringing capabilities in-house)? The process envisions enhanced experimentation and demonstration on the front end of the acquisition cycle. There is a move away from over-prescribing requirements to industry partners replaced by a focus on the problem that needs solving.
This strategy will likely result in less "Lowest Price Technically Acceptable Procurements" (LPTA) procurements and more "best value" acquisition of solutions to get the quality needed. This requires the Army to really think through what it truly values in solutions. LTG Crawford has stated: "You can expect the Army to start behaving more like a customer instead of a consumer – the way we have been approaching delivery of capability in the past."
Do you see this situation opening up opportunities for new and nimble vendors? There is obvious interest in new ideas, new approaches, new technologies. This is evident across all aspects of Army acquisition, not simply modernization of the network. The Army is very close to formation of its new "Futures Command" and a variety of "cross functional" teams are looking at how to speed acquisition and integrate efforts across multiple developmental activities.
I believe there is no better time to bring new commercial partners, new technologies, and new solutions into the defense sector. While there are still cultural hurdles and established practices to overcome, senior guidance and intent are clear to embrace change, build speed in procurement, and build new partnerships.
What advice do you have for tech startups who want to become military-approved vendors? It may be self-serving, but I sincerely believe a good entry point is to join an organization like AFCEA that focuses on the particular sector of interest of a startup. You are immediately in touch with similar businesses in a community deeply engaged with present and emergent requirements across the government. Attending one of our events immediately acquaints a company with the discussions, the technologies, and the actors important in the sector. Joining AFCEA is inexpensive and the chapters typically focus on the government procurements in local or regional markets. Networking is organic and expansive.
Also, the small business offices at each military activity responsible for procuring technology or other capabilities are charged with enabling startups and any other business possessing solutions to "get in the game." This office can explain the shortest path forward, the training and certification needed, and the best ways to reach decision makers. It's a hard path, admittedly, but you need a guide.
What about more R&D staging centers within the military? Do you see those as opening up to external partners? There are a number of new entities in the defense and homeland security sector that focus on speeding up the identification and procurement of promising technologies. The Defense Innovation Unit (DIUx) is, perhaps, the most recent and best-known organization of this type. Based in Silicon Valley, Boston, and Austin, this organization works to find, try, adapt, and buy promising solutions. Keywords to search for when looking for such organizations are innovation, rapid acquisition, OTA (other transaction authorities), and disruptive initiatives.
So there you have it. The US Army is looking for a few good geeks. Do you have what it takes?