For new Congress, an opportunity to support greater innovation for military
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The new Congress and new leadership in the House have a powerful opportunity to shape the nation’s defense by ensuring U.S. forces have access to the breadth of technologies that can counter the rising military challenge from Russia and China. 

Those two countries are increasingly viewed as threats to the U.S. and allied nations after making great strides in modernizing their militaries. “They are doing some things that’s actually better than we’re doing it,” said Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeEleven GOP senators sign open letter backing Sessions's comeback bid Overnight Defense: Pentagon says Syrian oil revenue going to Kurdish forces | GOP chair accuses Dems of using Space Force as leverage in wall fight | Dems drop plans to seek Bolton testimony GOP senator: House Democrats using Space Force as leverage in border wall fight MORE (R-Okla.), the new chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, during a recent speech at the National Defense University. “When I look and I see some of the equipment that they have compared to ours, you know, they’ve been busy.”

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As a high-level commission stresses, the rise of Beijing and Moscow can be mitigated by tapping into American technological know-how in the commercial world.

A new report by the “Commission on the National Defense Strategy for the United States” lays out the dilemma – while more promising innovation is occurring in the commercial sector rather than among defense companies, the Department of Defense is structurally incapable of mining it.

“Today, the U.S. private sector invests significantly greater amounts than the federal government in research and only a small portion of government investment goes to developing emerging technologies. At the same time, the emphasis for defense programs has been making the acquisition system function more smoothly rather than optimizing for innovation and technological breakthroughs,” the commission wrote. “This has led to more innovation taking place outside of the government—in our commercial sector, universities, and R&D labs—making it increasingly difficult for DOD to access new technology quickly, if at all.”

“Congress and DOD must agree on new ways to more rapidly approve and acquire breakthrough technologies,” the Commission added.

One way to do so that Congress and successive administrations have supported is to employ what is known as Other Transaction Authority.

OTA agreements jumpstart the slow technology-buying process and rapidly develop prototypes for assessment by the military services. OTA projects provide greater flexibility than typical government procurements, and they are welcoming of companies that have no history of working with the Department of Defense. Powered by an OTA, a research and prototyping project can be shepherded through the acquisition process and funded in about two months, where it could take well over a year if managed through the usual wickets.

The Pentagon recognizes the huge need for OTA’s. That’s why the Department of Defense just last month released new guidance for the military services on how and when to incorporate OTAs.

These agreements “provide the government with access to state-of-the-art technology solutions from traditional and non-traditional defense contractors, through a multitude of potential teaming arrangements tailored to the particular project and the needs of the participants,” the new guidance says.

While the military uses a mix of in-house assistance and non-profits to administer OTA agreements, there is a clear right way and wrong way of employing them. The guidance is helpful in illuminating this, but also several best practices are emerging about how best to assist the military forces through this rapid acquisition mechanism.

First, with greater speed to contract comes the responsibility to maximize transparency of both process and opportunity. With few exceptions, an OTA-fueled project should rely on an open-source platform. All requests for technology solutions and solicitations should be made widely available, because encouraging full and open competition is a key element in delivering the best solutions to the warfighter.

Second, innovation exists everywhere. Capturing state-of-the-art technologies requires the OTA administrator to consistently and proactively seek out innovative commercial companies that might have a mission-effective solution for the particular technology gap.

Third, the most pressing threats to national security are unlikely to be solved entirely by any one company alone. In order to ensure that the warfighter receives the most effective solution possible, an OTA program should create an environment conducive to true collaboration among the top technologists and most innovative companies.  

The new Congress has a golden opportunity to embrace efforts to break down the barriers that prevent access to commercial industries. The nation’s defense rides on it.

Greeff is founder and CEO of the National Security Technology Accelerator (NSTXL), a Raleigh, NC-based non-profit responsible for managing the Army’s Training and Readiness Accelerator (TReX).