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DOD Must Act Early to Extract Much-Needed Tech From Nation's Industrial Base

Dec. 6, 2021 | BY C. TODD LOPEZ , DOD News

America's technology companies make a lot of great products — but most of that is for the commercial market. If the Defense Department wants to get in on that product development cycle — and extract from it the things that are valuable to warfighters — then it must get in early and let technology companies know what it needs.

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"I've seen a lot of really innovative small companies ... a lot of these commercial companies, their product is commercial," Heidi Shyu, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said during a discussion Saturday at the Reagan National Defense Forum in Simi Valley, California. "If we can work with them upfront early in the design stage, we can leverage their capability for a commercial product into the DOD."

Many companies tell her they are interested in working with DOD, but that the cost is too high to develop a commercial product into a defense product after the commercial product is already to market, Shyu said. The Defense Department is simply not a high-volume enough consumer to warrant retooling an existing product to include the features DOD needs.

Military vehicles are lined up in a convoy.
Resupply Vehicle
A resupply vehicle belonging to Task Force Iron Valor stages at Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, April 21, 2021.
Photo By: Army Cpl. Kyle Burks
VIRIN: 210421-Z-CZ403-1061

"The early engagement — they value that so much," Shyu said. "This is a piece that we're trying to flex and push ahead: engage with the commercial company upfront, early in their design for the next generation of whatever product they are working on. [There is] great enthusiasm in that area."

Equipping the Warfighter Through Joint Efforts

Bringing advanced capabilities to the warfighter is a priority for the department. Bringing it to all warfighters — jointly — is even more so. And Shyu said efforts are underway now — already being put into the fiscal year 2023 budget, to make that happen.

"What we've done is take a look at the joint warfighting capability gaps — not just to a single service but across the joint warfighting capability gaps," she said.

Two military personnel talk on hand-held radios.
Corps Communication
Two Marines use their radios to communicate with other Marines, March 3, 2013, at Patrol Base Boldak, Afghanistan. Advancing the state of technology, such as radios, in a way that benefits the joint force, is a goal of the Defense Department.
Photo By: Marine Corps Sgt Bobby J. Yarbrough
VIRIN: 130303-M-DE426-022M

Shyu said the department asked combatant commands what their shortfalls and capability gaps are. And then the department went to the services to look for what solutions might be underway, in development, that could fix those shortfalls.

"What we have done this summer ... we went to the services and asked them, do you have prototypes you would like to demonstrate in a joint experimentation," she said. "In five weeks we received over 100 white papers. There is that much enthusiasm. We reviewed all these white papers, racked and stacked them in terms of which project has the best bang for the buck in terms of fulfilling these joint capability gaps that were defined by the joint services and COCOMs."

A helicopter flies above the desert.
Scenic Flight
Soldiers train for a downed aircraft scenario in Southwest Asia, Dec. 20, 2020.
Photo By: Army Sgt. Eric Smith
VIRIN: 201230-Z-IK914-204

She said 32 of those projects have gotten a "thumbs up" to advance and are now in the FY2023 budget.

"The COCOMs are already asking me how quickly [we can] get these capabilities in our hands," she said. "I said you guys will be the ones evaluating the capabilities. If you like it, we can go into rapid fielding. That is the path we have to be on: rapid development in terms of prototypes, rapid experimentation; get it into the hands of the users, the operators, the warfighters."