WASHINGTON — As US Special Operations Command deploys in more combat environments, its acquisition personnel need to innovate and adapt just as quickly as their forward-deployed counterparts, SOCOM's top acquisition official said Tuesday.
"To me, SOCOM is probably best-positioned right now in the DoD as that marketplace," he said. "We're in almost every operating environment, from submarines all the way to space, and we have a pretty close proximity to the operator." Speaking as part of the Atlantic Council's Defense-Industrial Policy Series, SOCOM acquisition executive James F. "Hondo" Geurts said SOCOM has succeeded largely by creating a marketplace that welcomes innovation from defense contractors, commercial companies in the private sector and operators in the field.
Currently, almost 7,800 of SOCOM's 69,700 total forces are deployed across 96 locations, he said. Four years ago, the vast majority of those would have been deployed in US Central Command's area of operations.
"SOF used to be a force that is globally deployable; now we are a globally deployed force," Geurts said. "Mission complexity is increasing; the number of missions they're doing is increasing; the number of partners they're engaging with is increasing; the number of environments they're working in is increasing.
For SOCOM's acquisition officials, the challenge is to create business models that are flexible enough to accommodate the uncertainty of not knowing where forces will be deployed three months from now, he said.
Too often, the Pentagon's acquisition process is built on the assumptions that threats, money, requirements and technology will all remain constant, when in fact they all change, he said.
"I don't want to be surprised by change, I want to own change," he said.
For six years, SOCOM has used 3-D printers in use downrange, with engineer and manufacturing teams at firebase levels, producing 30,000 projects, he said. In one case, an officer asked for small, 3-D topographical map, so he could explain an operation to partners who couldn’t read English, he said. The resulting printout cost six cents and took 20 minutes.
"The thing that really worries me is, H how do we attract the best talent in the world to get after these problems?" he said. "That, to me is, the crisis in acquisition. It’s not how much stuff costs, or how long it takes. Those are all symptoms."
One key is to focus on solutions that can be put aside just as quickly as they are implemented, he said. Individual consumers don't seek out products with a 30-year logistical tail in mind, and the military shouldn't be bound to that mode of planning either.
For SOF, a device or product with a 10 percent chance of success may be worth using in the field, because if it works, it will provide superiority. But often program officers view this type of trial-and-error as a liability, since no one wants a list of failed projects on his or her resume, Geurts said.
"Anybody think our enemies … are worried about failure when they're trying new things? That's what keeps me up at night," he said.
"Velocity is my combat advantage. Iteration speed is what I'm after. Because if I can go five times faster than you, I can fail four times and still beat you to the target, and I know I'm going to have a better product," he said. "But that's not how we train people to think, but that's really what we're going after here, to be a valued part of the team."
Byron Callan, an analyst with Capital Alpha, attended Geurts' Atlantic Council presentation, and in a note to investors highlighted SOCOM's efforts to engage new voices by establishing SofWorX in Tampa, where it recently hosted a hack-a-thon.
"Geurts recognizes that SOCOM deals with different challenges than other parts of the DoD acquisition system but there should not be a one-size-fits-all set of practices and behaviors," Callan wrote. "SOCOM's procurement budget is [approximately] $2 billion, but it relies on platform and infrastructure investments that other branches of the military makes. His mantra was 'plan for the unplanned" and that has struck us as a contrast to frequent calls we hear for stability and predictability in defense acquisition."
Callan observed that SOCOM has a logistics issue when it has to support equipment not provided by other branches that may be non-traditional, an issue that SOCOM's commander, Army Gen. Joseph Votel, said applies to SOCOM's foreign partners as well.
Speaking Wednesday at the National Defense Industrial Association's Special Operations/Low Intensity Conflict Division Symposium, Votel said industry could work with SOCOM to provide sophisticated equipment for partners that meets operators' needs in the field. The gear also need to be durable, because any partners don't have the necessary logistics to provide complicated upkeep, said Votel, who has been nominated to lead CENTCOM.
"We have to make sure it has the right capabilities without adding so much on that it becomes overly complicated to maintain and train," he said.