A role is emerging for small firms that connect defense to commercial technologies.
On his recent pilgrimage to Silicon Valley, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tried hard to stoke enthusiasm amongst commercial software firms for working with the Pentagon. So far, they’re not buying the pitch. To start, they’re just not interested in ten percent margins and the burdens of the Federal Acquisition Regulations. More so, as a vice president at an aerospace company out there recently explained to me, the problem also lies in Californian culture. “I sell weapons,” she said; “my husband works in the oil business. We live in Santa Monica. You can imagine that we’re really popular with the neighbors.” So there’s a gap, and no amount of hectoring by cabinet officers will close it.
On the other side, Carter and his team complain that the defense industry isn’t very innovative on short timelines. But industry retorts—as I have heard of late from plenty of annoyed industrialists—that the US government just doesn’t permit much to go quickly. The big prime contractors are slow because they’re rationally fearful of breaking any of a myriad of rules. Over decades, that permanent state of hesitation has gotten culturally ingrained, as an isomorphic reaction to necessarily matching the organizational structures of their customers. So now, the military can’t get what it wants from many of its established suppliers, because the bureaucracy has spent decades teaching those suppliers that they’ll be punished for thinking of the possible.
Assistant Army Secretary Heidi Shyu is frustrated too. During her address last month at the Atlantic Council on “Modernizing Army Acquisition,” Shyu both conceded that much of the problem lies with government, and expressed exasperation at the challenge of changing bureaucratic behavior in her own department. In the question-and-answer session following her address, she suggested a small-ball solution. Defense, and the Army in particular she said, could benefit from smart, commercially-dervied interfaces that shield users from the complexity found in plenty of today’s systems. The battlefield usability of those bespoke back-ends need more ergonomic front-ends from commercially-minded, but militarily-attuned, electronics houses.
Shyu’s idea reminded me immediately of Coolfire Solutions, a mobile computing company in coming-back downtown Saint Louis, which I had visited awhile back. The company was actually spun out from a slick video marketing firm a few years ago. Walk in the door, and the bean bag chairs and lava lamps quickly signal that you’re not at Lockheed Martin. The mission, though, is just as serious. Coolfire builds the cases and cables, and then modifies the Linux kernel, to form what they claim as “the default way to connect an Android device” to military gear and networks.
“Every one of the customers wants this capability,” Mike Leopold told me when I called recently to reconnect. As the company’s EVP for sales and marketing, he has been working with military customers and established military suppliers alike to bridge that cultural-technical gap. For the past few years, Coolfire has been working particularly closely with Harris, which had wanted to build its own military tablet, but which eventually realized that end-users just prefer commercial derivatives. Now their systems are ruggedized from 30,000 feet to 10 feet underwater, but function like smartphones. The point of that smart, go-anywhere information architecture is situational awareness. Turning reams of data into useful knowledge is a highly contextual, role-based problem for the designers, and the required skills bridge commercial and military realms. But when the problem is solved, as Leopold put it, users can “live in the Cloud, and not the fog.”
I’ve seen plenty more small companies like Coolfire out there, in different industries supplying multiple military forces. For defense ministries, finding and cultivating them is hard work in supplier development and supplier relationship management. Leveraging their talents often requires working through established suppliers, who have the intellectual and physical assets needed to produce all-up weapons systems. Perhaps then, it’s time to bury the Google-envy, and look harder around the world to find these systematically under-appreciated firms. Maybe the next time a defense official wants to fly California for inspiration, he could stop in Missouri for some practical instruction in the art of the culturally and technically possible.
James Hasík is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security.