Acquiring Innovation: Rediscovering OTA Contracts

OTA Contracts

Michael Wright is in Business Development and Proposals for JANUS Research Group. In this article, he explains the immense benefits of a more nimble acquisition process via OTA contracts (Other Transaction Authority contracts) as it relates to training technologies.

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At last summer’s Training & Simulation Industry Symposium (TSIS), in front of a standing-room-only crowd, Ms. Chérie Smith, the Army’s Deputy Program Executive Officer (PEO) for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (STRI), put the Defense Acquisition Life Cycle “wall chart” up on the screens to illustrate the complex nature of DoD’s Acquisition Life Cycle.

The time needed to successfully execute the acquisition process, even when tailored, challenges DoD’s ability to develop, field, and rapidly evolve the systems and capabilities necessary to defeat agile and innovative threats.  Traditional contracting processes often contribute to delays in our ability to rapidly deliver capabilities.

Most agree that traditional acquisition timelines aren’t well suited for today’s, and certainly tomorrow’s, challenges.  Some attribute the problem to the fact that the acquisition process is fundamentally about developing and delivering systems, not necessarily capabilities.  Others point to issues with the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS) process, industry protests, over-regulation, and acquisition law.  The reality is that the problem stems from all of these factors. And many others.

As with most complex problems, especially those in government, the solution is seldom clear or easy to put in place.  While they won’t solve the larger problem, innovative contracting solutions are a way to solve some of the problem by reducing contracting timelines while also ensuring fair and open competition.

When discussing the acquisition life cycle, both Contracting Officers and contractors are often required to talk in terms of years rather than days or months.  As technology continues its rapid and relentless advance, long and complicated DoD acquisition procedures are failing to keep pace with industry capabilities.

In some technological domains, prolonged acquisition can have substantial negative impacts on military training.  In the cyber domain, for example, Army cyber protection teams require a Persistent Cyber Training Environment in which to train advanced cyber operations.  These teams need this training environment now; waiting for the traditional acquisition life cycle puts our nation at further risk.

The solution to this and other similar problems may be a rediscovery of sorts – using the  OTA process. Other Transactions use legally binding contracts  that allow contracting offices to rapidly acquire prototype systems. OTA contracts rely on the involvement of “nontraditional” defense contractors and/or small businesses. Often, the government will form contractor-managed consortiums to aggregate nontraditional contractors and further expedite the acquisition process.  The goals are to improve the rate of technology transition, provide agile and iterative prototypes and, ultimately, equip soldiers faster.

In practice, OTAs can be used in conjunction with the traditional acquisition life cycle.  Technologies can be prototyped, demonstrated, and fielded prior to formal acquisition and sustainment.  For example, the Army Contracting Command (ACC) – Orlando recently solicited whitepapers in response to the Combined Arms Center – Training (CAC-T) Synthetic Training Environment (STE) requirement.  ACC – Orlando used OTA procedures to request whitepapers from capable vendors with the intent of rapidly and iteratively fielding STE capabilities.

The use of OTA will allow the Government to put prototype STE capabilities in the hands of soldiers within a matter of months rather than years.  Once STE capabilities have matured, the program will likely transition to fielding and sustainment through traditional acquisition procedures.  Similarly, PEO STRI is using OTAs to rapidly prototype cyber training technologies related to the Army’s Persistent Cyber Training Environment requirement.

OTA contracts are nothing new.  They’ve long been used by DoD to expedite the acquisition process – even for complex systems – with varying levels of success.  The recent popularity of OTAs is driven by urgent technological needs, and it’s having a huge impact in the world of military training.

Just within the last few months, a new Modeling, Simulation and Training (MS&T) consortium has been established, with its heart in the Orlando MS&T community.  The newly formed consortium, titled the Training and Readiness Accelerator (TReX), is intended to serve as the primary source for MS&T OTAs.

OTAs reduce program risk through iterative funding and development.  Through OTA contracts, both the government and industry are more likely to take chances on innovative technologies. Small business and/or nontraditional defense contractors are encouraged to “think outside the box” and creatively solve complex training challenges.  Likewise, large and/or traditional defense contractors are encouraged to pull these innovation leaders into the fold through teaming.

As the military training community adapts to the recent rise in popularity of OTA contracts, the collective goal is for soldiers to more quickly get their hands on critical technologies.  While the success of this approach remains to be seen, one thing is clear:  OTAs are rapidly changing the way our community does business.