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Defense Office Brings Small Tech Companies Into Big League

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The biggest U.S. defense contractors — such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics and Raytheon — provide many of the technologically advanced weapons and systems used by U.S. service members. 

But there are thousands of other technology companies in the U.S., some large and many quite small, with big ideas and capabilities that have never had the opportunity to contribute to the nation's defense, even though the idea may appeal to them.

An illustration showing a city with 5G hubs pointed out.
5G Illustration
An illustration showing a city with 5G hubs pointed out.
Photo By: Nelson James, Air Force
VIRIN: 200612-D-VX961-663

In March, the Quick Reaction Special Projects program, which is part of the Rapid Reaction Technology Office within the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering,  published the "2021 Global Needs Statement."

The Global Needs Statement — which is just one of several proposal calls per year that RRTO engages with small and non-traditional companies to incubate innovation by showcasing new ideas and concepts to a Defense Department audience — asks interested companies to provide their most compelling and innovative technologies and ideas in areas involving artificial intelligence and machine learning; autonomy; biotechnology; cyber; directed energy; fully networked command, communication and control; hypersonics; microelectronics; quantum technology; space and 5G communications.

Those technology areas are of great interest to the Defense Department and were spelled out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy; respondents to the Global Needs Statement aren't expected to be the big players who usually get the government contracts.

A woman works in a laboratory.
Quantum Networking
An Army researcher works on advanced quantum networking at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md., June 24, 2020.
Photo By: Army photo
VIRIN: 200624-A-A1908-1000

"For this particular initiative ... the vast majority of the companies that submit applications are companies that DOD doesn't do business with on a regular basis or at all," said John Lazar, RRTO's Director. "We're trying to bring in more companies that DOD either doesn't know about or rarely does business with.  We limit companies to 100 words on their applications to make it even easier to get their ideas in front of DOD."

Working with DOD can be quite daunting or bureaucratically challenging for some small companies, which can have a chilling effect on engagement. It's something RRTO can help with, Lazar said.

"Part of what our RRTO engages in, not just in this particular program but with many of our programs, is mentoring and teaching these businesses how to do business with the Defense Department," he said. "We help them with white papers, proposals — whatever the DOD customer is looking for. We help them communicate."

While the window for submitting proposals for the 2021 Global Needs Statement closed in April, more than 650 responses to the statement were received. A second needs statement is open through early June, and more will occur throughout the year.

A graphic illustrates a red beam emanating from an aircraft in silhouette up toward a satellite.
Directed Energy Graphic
A graphic highlighting "directed energy weapons." Directed energy is an area of technology advancement spelled out in the 2018 National Defense Strategy. In its Global Needs Statement, the Defense Department recently asked for proposals regarding directed energy in its 2021 Global Needs Statement.
Photo By: Justin Weisbarth, National Air and Space Intelligence Center
VIRIN: 191031-D-HF064-0011

RRTO will then read through the submissions and evaluate them with subject matter experts, finding the best of the best to bring forward to potential customers inside the Defense Department.

Then, Lazar said, DOD customers such as the military services, combatant commands and defense agencies will help decide which submissions they think have the highest potential for payoff.

"Those companies will then engage directly with those DOD customers ... from there, it's out of RRTO's hands, and it's between the company and that defense customer," Lazar said.

The DOD customer will work with the company in question to further develop technology proposals that have been brought forward into products that can meet their needs, Pena said.

By the end of June, about 35 of the 650 companies who submitted proposals this year will have been selected to move forward with continued talks with DOD customers, and eventually, that number will be down-selected further. But the end result will be  Defense Department access to new companies bringing ideas that might not have been seen before.

Last year, as part of the Quick Reaction Special Projects program's "innovation outreach" effort, 1,600 companies responded to open-ended DOD needs statements.

Military personnel sit at computer terminals in a room with a large screen.  One service member is standing.
Cyber Ops
Personnel with the 175th Cyberspace Operations Group conduct cyber operations at Warfield Air National Guard Base, Middle River, Md., June 3, 2017.
Photo By: J.M. Eddins Jr., Air Force
VIRIN: 170603-F-LW859-023A

In previous years, new companies such as FireEye (cybersecurity), MotionDSP (software and image processing), Saratoga Data (software/engineering), and Tectus (virtual/augmented reality) became DOD partners — joining the ranks of much larger defense contractors who for decades have helped meet warfighter needs.

With this latest Global Needs Statement effort, Lazar said, DOD once again hopes to bring on board new companies with new ideas that can provide even better tools to help service members meet the nation's defense needs.

"What we're looking for are highly innovative companies with new technologies that have the potential to provide leap-ahead capabilities against near-peer adversaries and fill gaps in critical joint mission needs," Lazar said.

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