X Marks the Spot for DoD Innovations

military dod army AI innovation cyber command

The military services are mirroring the approach of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU), which seeks to accelerate the development of new technologies. This would be accomplished through collaboration with companies large and small, old and new. It has been so successful that earlier this month it got to remove the “x” from its name, as it’s no longer a temporary experiment.

DIUx was launched in 2015 as an “innovation experiment” to enlist cutting-edge companies to accelerate the development of new technologies that could then be quickly delivered to warfighters. The unit initially established an office in Silicon Valley and has since added offices at the Pentagon, as well as in Boston, and Austin, Texas.

Working with a fairly small budget—$71 million in fiscal 2019, up from $41 million in 2018—DIU doesn’t fund projects in the traditional sense, but seeks to generate investment, often from startups or other companies that have investors behind them. Last year, DIUx said the 37 companies whose projects it was supporting had drawn $1.8 billion in investments.

The approach has been successful enough that the Department of Defense announced this month that it was dropping “Experimental,” which was the “x” in DIUx, from the unit’s name and making it a permanent organization.

DIU isn’t alone in looking for faster ways to develop innovative technologies with a minimum of up-front money. The military services are running similar programs, sometimes with an “x” in their names, even if it stands for something other than experimental.

The Army, for instance, has launched its Expeditionary Technology Search, or xTechSearch, which is taking an entrepreneurial approach to attracting small and non-traditional DoD partners, with the idea that DoD’s interest would attract potential investors. The xTechSearch program is offering $200,000 in prizes parceled out across the initial stages, leading to the announcement of 12 finalists in October. In additional to submitting white papers and presenting their ideas to the Army’s science and technology leaders, selected companies will make their pitches to investors who will then decide whether to back each program.

If that sounds a little like “Shark Tank,” the Army is thinking the same way. “They just have to wow us,” Dr. Thomas P. Russell, the Army’s Chief Scientist and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology, said this month. “They just have to give us a great presentation, sort of like a shark-tanky type thing. Give us an idea that they have great technologies and opportunities that will actually support the warfighter and just wow the panel, and I think they’ll do great.”

Meanwhile, the Army and Navy are both x-ing out with TReX, the Training and Readiness Accelerator, which is taking a collaborative approach to quickly developing prototypes, with a focus on modeling, simulation, and training. Unveiled late last year, TReX describes itself as a “a new era public-private partnership” involving an open-source network of industry, academia, investors, laboratories, and government. It’s managed in collaboration with the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTA).

Like DIU, the services making frequent use of TReX are employing Other Transaction Authority (OTA), an increasingly popular method of getting contracts in place while avoiding the slow, sticky requirements of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. The Army has used TReX to grant OTAs to improve Cyber Mission Force training and to develop a prototype to help protect warfighters against missile threats.

Not all of the innovations directly involve warfighting. The Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command is using TReX to solicit proposals for improving its logistics and maintenance systems across the Navy.

Defense officials have talked about the need for speed in keeping up with technological advances and the pace with which adversaries are doing the same, whether in cyber operations, artificial intelligence, or other technologies. Innovative approaches to developing new tech—in terms of both contracting and technology—is one way DoD is trying to keep up.

Recent