To keep pace with threats, the Department of Defense (DoD) is undergoing a change in how it procures military technology products and systems. From leveraging Other Transactional Authority agreements (OTAs) and innovative procurement vehicles to requiring an open systems approach to software development, to live testing scenarios with immediate feedback, the dynamic between the DoD and industry has become more collaborative to address the needs for the future battlefield.
Recently, we sat down with Elaine Bitonti, Executive Director of Business Development for Mission Systems at Collins Aerospace, to talk about these changes and how it has impacted business development efforts. Bitonti, who has been in the government contracting industry since the start of her career, has always sought to understand the customer.
When Bitonti started her career after she graduated with a degree in international business, she knew that she wanted to be customer–facing. She had always been interested in cultures and what brought a community together, and she had explored how people do business across many countries. This desire helped Bitonti understand the defense community at large. She spent a decade at Lockheed Martin before joining Collins Aerospace. Along the way, Bitonti found she got her “energy from the customer” and learned their needs in the simulation and training market. Later, in everything from ground vehicles to unmanned aerial systems (UAS) and nuclear command and control systems.
Throughout the course of her career, Bitonti has always stayed in tune with the customer and as their needs evolved, so did her approach. One of the most significant changes she has seen is the customers’ need for speed and adaptability. “Across the community today, customers are clear that they need capabilities more quickly and they need capabilities that are more connected to keep pace with adversaries,” she told us. “In the past, there have been a lot of stovepipes, but now, the different services understand that they must evolve and are embracing an open, connected approach.”
This open systems approach requires the vendor community to think differently when they build solutions for the customer, Bitonti noted. Solutions that are being built for today need to be capable of meeting the mission for tomorrow. “It’s an exciting time for innovation and pushing the industry to think differently about how we deliver solutions.”
This open systems approach is one area that the commercial industry has embraced, specifically when considering the smartphone market. These days, the iPhone or Android hardware is there, and new features and functionality are added quickly to each new iteration. “It’s not as simple for the military market,” Bitonti explained. “Yet, with an open systems approach, we can build on a concept that offers this level of flexibility.”
Bitonti also pointed to the importance of collaboration between DoD and the industry with testing. “As we think about the advanced threats from the adversary, it’s critical that we continuously develop prototypes that we can test. Instead of creating a five-year program to develop a solution, we can now bring an 80 percent solution that we can demo, get live feedback, and then go back and tweak it to meet the needs of the warfighter.” This collaboration shortens delivery times markedly. “It not only allows us to go from concept to delivery in half the cycle that we used to see, but it allows us to keep pace with technology innovation and get newer technologies into the hands of the military customer faster.”
For this approach to be successful, vendors must have a deeper understanding of the customer and the market and a robust digital engineering environment. “When we talk about experimentation and testing, it also means that we don’t have the detailed specs that we once did,” Bitonti explained. “We have to really understand the customer from an operational perspective while also understanding their objectives and then identifying where the gaps are. From there, we need a digital environment where we can collaborate with the customer and we need the smartest engineers to address those gaps.”
This approach is not without challenges. The DoD requirement for speed and agility also requires a shift in how they communicate opportunities and procure new solutions. The traditional method of procurement can take years, and with the fast pace of technology innovation, it’s simply not feasible to keep pace. Leveraging new procurement tools such as OTA’s opens up new opportunities to smaller companies that are developing solutions using emerging technologies.
Similarly, on the industry side, there is the challenge of predicting the market and where it’s going, including what technologies should be invested in. Bitonti noted that the vendor community takes on significant risk. “There is a lot more risk from an industry perspective because you’re predicting the market, you’re investing in prototypes, and you’re trying to get sponsored into demos and other customer experimentation so you can demonstrate warfighter relevancy.”
Yet that doesn’t scare Bitonti away. In fact, this approach is in her wheelhouse because it keeps the focus on the customer. “It requires you to work closely with the customer to understand their needs even better. Being a part of the process sooner, understanding the needs of the warfighter, and experimenting to hit the target faster allows us to help the customer meet their mission and support the national defense strategy.”
“When preparing for the future battlefield, it’s important to note that we are all in this together. We have to adapt if we are going to keep pace with future threats. If we don’t change and innovate, we will fail,” Bitonti concluded.