Project Vulcan: Special Ops and the Tech Innovation End Game

April 8, 2015

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The technology world is accelerating at faster and faster rates – a development that has major implications for the U.S. defense establishment.

Historically, the Department of Defense (DOD) has emphasized internal research and development as the cornerstone of a military-technology strategy, but such an approach requires considerable time and money. There is another often-overlooked component of technology competitiveness, however, that has come to play an increasingly important role in the marketplace and on the battlefield. Applied innovation is the modification or integration of legacy and emerging technologies for new purposes. Today, the center of gravity for research and development is the global commercial marketplace, and the military-technology initiative is shifting to those organizations with the ability to build and exploit information asymmetries regarding the sources and uses of technology (i.e. arbitrage). In this context, technology itself is a commodity with value creation occurring through the rapid identification and deployment of novel applications that are greatly superior to legacy products and methods or what the venture capital community refers to as “killer apps.” More than ever before, DOD’s future technology edge will be predicated on its ability to sense and exploit these killer apps ahead of the threat.

An example of this approach is the U.S. Navy’s Spike missile. Developed by the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division at China Lake and weighing just five pounds, the Spike missile represents a complete reformulation of guided missile technology optimized for widely proliferating small drone platforms and man-portable launchers. In this case, the applied innovation consisted of adapting consumer-grade cellular electronics and chip-scale manufacturing techniques to a uniquely military challenge: low cost, precision engagement and defeat of soft targets leveraging tactical platforms. As of this writing, Spike has been successfully demonstrated in a range of scenarios, achieving accuracies comparable to or better than currently deployed guided missile systems.

A military-technology strategy predicated in part on applied innovation demands new tools and new competencies. Enter Technology Domain Awareness (TDA). TDA is a knowledge-based platform that networks technologies, operational concepts, and lessons learned to support better technology decision-making and expand opportunities for applied innovation. In the first of a series of three articles on this topic, we explored the underlying factors and goals of the TDA mission to develop a robust defense innovation base that cooperatively aligns the global research and development marketplace with emerging military capability needs. In the second article, we described a TDA operating model that (1) connects stakeholders in DOD, academia, and industry, (2) informs defense technology decision-making, and (3) builds cost effective capability prototypes. In this final article, we detail how TDA is currently being deployed to augment the agile acquisition practices of the U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) community in order to accelerate the discovery of applied innovations and create superior military effects.

Special Operations Forces Innovation

U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) are characterized by their flexibility, adaptability, self-reliance, and non-conformity in executing missions that are unsuited to traditional military elements. In support of the SOF equipping function, U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) is invested with acquisition responsibilities and authorities similar to those of the military services. These authorities – exercised by the Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (SOF AT&L) organization – have been specifically tailored to facilitate the rapid fielding of new capabilities in response to emerging operational needs. The diverse, small-scale, and specialized nature of special operations missions and associated capabilities have led many to discount the lessons that the SOF acquisition community can teach the conventional military branches regarding the management of uncertainty through innovation. A brief examination of ongoing and planned SOF AT&L practices, however, reveals a number of specific insights relevant to the entire DOD community.

SOF AT&L employs business practices that are designed to accelerate the innovation cycle from the identification of needs to the delivery of capabilities. In the case of one high visibility initiative, the Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit (TALOS) (often called the “Iron Man” suit), SOF AT&L has assigned top Special Forces operators with recent combat experience to the TALOS acquisition team. By closely aligning high-end users, technologists, and acquisition professionals in a dynamic, problem-solving environment, the TALOS program can quickly identify, prototype, and integrate capabilities in a manner reminiscent of the iterative development cycles favored by Silicon Valley.

To a considerable extent, emerging SOF acquisition practices reflect the nature of the contemporary threat and technology environments. Summing up his experience leading forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley A. McChrystal described the coalition strategy in succinct terms: “it takes a network to defeat a network.” Increasingly, today’s security threats are hyper-connected systems of strongly and weakly linked individuals and organizations. This structure is mirrored in the modern high tech marketplace, where success is predicated on the ability of firms to access and exploit networks of ideas, resources, and talent.

To this end, SOF AT&L is currently embarking on a major initiative designed to expand SOCOM’s technology footprint. This initiative, dubbed Project Vulcan, is a collaboration between SOF AT&L, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, the DOD Information Analysis Centers, and the National Defense University. Based on the Technology Domain Awareness innovation model, Project Vulcan incorporates online and offline engagement opportunities in order to broadly connect SOF operators and acquisition professionals with their counterparts in the high tech community. This network will augment on-going SOF AT&L technology scouting and experimentation activities by improving technology discovery, enhancing collaboration, and reducing development timelines for advanced SOF prototype development.

Project Vulcan

Many of the best military-technology innovations of the past decade have stemmed from the intersection of operational insight and technical know-how catalyzed by active combat operations. Groundbreaking technologies such as DOD’s first wide-area electro-optical surveillance system, the Army’s Constant Hawk, and the first fully automated, tip-and-cue imaging system, the Persistent Threat Detection System, were the direct result of design-based approaches that capitalized on feedback from the tactical edge combined with inputs from the research and development community. The organizations best suited to produce such innovations are those where local interactions between multidisciplinary individuals and teams produce serendipity – the chance coalescing of ideas in new ways that create value. Serendipity by definition is a product of happenstance. It cannot be scaled in the manner of industrial, top-down approaches; however, innovation-minded organizations can engineer the conditions under which serendipity is most likely to occur. Building such an innovation environment requires the deployment of business processes, incentives, and tools that facilitate collaboration and information sharing.

The unique and unavoidable constraints governing defense capability development can inhibit the direct translation of commercial-style innovation models like open innovation that promote serendipity. In order to take advantage of such approaches, the SOF community requires business processes that adapt innovation best practices from different sectors to the defense context. For example, national security considerations necessarily limit the flow of information between SOF stakeholders and would-be collaborators in the global technology community. To address this challenge, Project Vulcan is prototyping a methodology for translating classified needs into releasable needs statements, where technology requirements are framed in terms of general “jobs” that SOF operators need to accomplish. By avoiding prescriptive, detailed requirements, this approach will not only expand opportunities for a wider cross-section of technologists to support SOF-relevant problems but also allow for disruptive insights that defy preconceived solutions.

Building a strategic framework for applied innovation that fully incorporates academia and industry also requires appropriate incentives. Historically, defense represented the largest market for advanced technology development, but regulatory barriers combined with the migration of investment capital to the commercial sector have distanced DOD from the most influential segments of the global high tech economy. Compounding this problem, the economics of defense are simply not attractive to many venture-backed, high-growth multiple technology firms. One approach to overcome these obstacles involves aligning defense and private investment capital in ways that encourage more fulsome engagement with the tech base. Today, venture capital tends to be biased towards market risk (i.e. the risk that a market will exist for a technology) at the expense of technology risk (i.e. the risk that the technology will work as designed). By contrast, DOD invests almost exclusively in technology risk, allocating little capital to the transition of technology prototypes to formal defense programs. This practice is a key contributor to what industry observers define as the “valley of death” – the gap between technology invention and transition or acquisition.

Targeted information exchange and outreach along the lines facilitated by Project Vulcan will promote synergies between the SOF and venture capital communities, where (1) private investors are afforded new opportunities to offset the technology risk of high potential dual-use (i.e. military-civilian) products and (2) SOCOM can leverage the commercial marketplace to mitigate the risk of successfully transitioning prototypes to affordable products. Stronger ties between the SOF and venture capital communities will in turn help to redefine how high tech start-ups think about the defense market as a pathway to capitalization and provide a powerful new incentive for engagement.

A telling example of this idea is the Global Positioning System (GPS) technology. Originally developed by DOD in the 1980’s to support precision strike for standoff weapon systems, the commercial marketplace quickly discovered applications of the technology across a broad range of areas. It was not until the wide-scale proliferation of mobile and handheld devices in response to consumer market demand, however, that DOD could reasonably afford to equip every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine with a GPS receiver. Leveraging commercial investment and economies of scale to offset military-technology costs in a more explicit and direct manner is fundamental for DOD to sustain an affordable and scalable high tech force into the future.

Applied innovation depends on tools that support the robust exchange of information between military operators and acquisition professionals and their counterparts in the technology community. Like many DOD organizations, SOF AT&L continuously scouts the technology terrain to identify research and products that enhance its capability portfolio. The information derived from such activities, however, is not sufficiently discoverable by members of the SOF community due to the manner in which it is collected, managed, and communicated. The lack of “discoverability” in turn limits opportunities for serendipity, where technology information collected for one purpose can be related to alternate needs through the unstructured interactions of an extended stakeholder group. Project Vulcan is exploring solutions that address this need based on the development of (1) a taxonomy that normalizes technology data collection and reporting and (2) a network-based knowledge environment, where users build an accretive information context for technology decision making.

The potential impact of structured, network-based knowledge sharing as a catalyst for applied innovation is profound. It allows organizations to benefit from the technology and application discovery efforts of other members in the network. For example, such a framework would enable the U.S. combatant commands to share technology assessments in areas of mutual interest and likewise promulgate information regarding emerging capability gaps. Where technology information intersects with a capability gap, the opportunity for a new applied innovation exists. In this scenario, the ability of the networked organizations to (1) find and (2) apply mission-relevant technologies is amplified by the extent to which the participants represent common technology interests and capability needs.

While SOF differs from conventional military elements in many important respects, the increasing complexity and uncertainty of the contemporary threat environment make special operations acquisition practices more relevant to DOD as a whole than ever before. End-user focused development and network-based learning and experimentation, long foundational elements of the SOF rapid acquisition model, are necessary elements of a defense-wide innovation system optimized to current threat-response timescales. For this reason, the Office of the Secretary of Defense is exploring a range of opportunities with the Services and other Combatant Commands to position Project Vulcan services and tools for implementation across DOD.

End Game

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey recently affirmed to the U.S. Congress that “our most sacred obligation is to make sure (our military is) never sent into a fair fight, which is to say that they must be the best-led, the best-trained, and the best-equipped force in the world.” This sentiment expresses the fundamental rationale of Project Vulcan and the underlying Technology Domain Awareness initiative. At its core, Project Vulcan is a reflection of network-based creative destruction – that is, the sampling and co-mingling of diverse ideas that produce new, disruptive technology paradigms. Ultimately, it may be DOD’s ability to win the battle for the technology commons by leveraging these network effects (i.e. technology arbitrage) rather than inventing the next “game changing” technology that will dictate the long-term efficacy of the defense technology enterprise. Project Vulcan supports a number of key outcomes that, if scaled appropriately, will enable DOD to begin addressing this challenge.


Mr. Anthony J. (Tony) Davis is the Director, Science and Technology for the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM), MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Mr. Davis leads the application of applied research and advanced technology development funding to SOCOM capability gaps, delivering and transitioning leap ahead technologies to special operations forces worldwide.

James F. (“Hondo”) Geurts, a member of the Senior Executive Service, is the Acquisition Executive, U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Florida.  He is responsible for all special operations forces research, development, acquisition, procurement and logistics.

Adam Jay Harrison is Director of the Center for Smart Defense at West Virginia University. He is former Director of the Department of Defense Technical Operations Support Activity and founder of Mav6, an Inc. 500 aerospace and defense technology company.

Jawad Rachami is the Founder and CEO of Cylitix LLC, specializing in the application of human-centered design and collaborative innovation models to technology development programs. Jawad has over 16 years of experience in the execution and management of federal programs.

Christopher Zember is Director of the Department of Defense’s Information Analysis Centers, which annually conducts over $1.5 billion in technology-centered research and analysis.  His prior positions include work in national security policy, Defense planning, and intelligence analysis, with posts both inside and outside government, in the U.S. and abroad.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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