Winning Acquisition
The creative acquisition strategies by the winners of this year's Business Solutions in the Public Interest Awards were essential to the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.


t. Col. Christopher Jella's surveillance flights were instrumental in the U.S. military's swift and decisive victory in Iraq earlier this year. The images he captured provided critical targeting information for his Air Force colleagues. Yet Jella never once saw the deserts of Iraq or buildings in Baghdad with his own eyes. He flew all of his missions from California.

Jella piloted a Global Hawk, one of the unmanned aerial vehicles that quickly became a key success story of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Although the remote-controlled aircraft were used for only 3 percent of surveillance sorties and 5 percent of high-altitude missions, they collected information for nearly 55 percent of air offensive targets.

But if not for an innovative acquisition strategy, Global Hawk would most likely still be grounded, waiting for the red tape to be cut before it could even get into production. By abandoning its ordinary procurement philosophy, the Air Force reduced acquisition time from the normal 10-plus years to roughly three years.

"What they were able to do in terms of speed, getting the product to market so quickly, that is pretty good," says Stephen Busch, senior executive program analyst at Kepler Research Inc. of McLean, Va. "It's one thing to have a product that is flying [during tests]. It's another to have it operational."

Inventive thinking garnered the Global Hawk team one of this year's Business Solutions in the Public Interest awards. The other recipients are In-Q-Tel, a venture capital fund at the Central Intelligence Agency; and the Joint Air Force Defense Systems Integrator, a Defense Department project to acquire information technology.

This is the fourth year for the awards, which are sponsored by Government Executive, the Council for Excellence in Government and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. This year, after more than 70 applications were narrowed down to 15 finalists, a panel of procurement experts from government and the private sector selected the three winners. While vastly different, they have one element in common-the use of a creative acquisition strategy to help achieve a critical agency mission.


Global Hawk, Air Force

Recognizing that it can take several years to get a weapons system from development to deployment, the Air Force's Global Hawk team looked for a way to speed up the acquisition process. Defense first awarded Teledyne Ryan Aeronautical the Global Hawk contract in May 1995. Northrop Grumman acquired Teledyne in 1999 and took over as the prime contractor. The aircraft took its first test flights in February 1998. Despite some technological glitches, the Air Force was determined to develop an arsenal of unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles.

Air Force officials were aware, however, that it might take years to get the vehicle equipped with 100 percent of their desired features. So they opted for a highly flexible approach, using a "spiral development technique." Under this approach, warfighters would get a stripped-down version of the aircraft as soon as it was ready. As the program moved forward, and more funding became available, new capabilities would be added. The goal was twofold: make the plane as versatile as possible and get it to the Air Force quickly.

"Buying technology still in development can be taboo, but it's one of the only ways to get technology to the warfighter," Lt. Dawson Oslund, chief of the Global Hawk product team, told the Business Solutions in the Public Interest judges in June.

As a pilot, Jella told the judges he would like to see more capabilities on the plane, but he'll take what he can get for now. Spiral development allows the pilots to provide feedback on the current aircraft and have an impact on future changes. Still, there is a danger with the approach, says Busch, one of this year's judges. "If I'm a budget person looking for money and I see that someone on the operational side says they are making do with 70 percent of the product or service, how committed will the department be to getting it up to 100 percent?"


In-Q-Tel, CIA

Having the CIA knock on your door probably does not rank high on most people's wish lists. Unless, of course, the agents are armed with a briefcase full of cash and an offer to invest in your fledgling technology company.

That's just what the agency's In-Q-Tel outfit does. It seeks out commercial technologies that could be applicable to the agency's mission. Functioning like a venture capital fund, In-Q-Tel puts money into firms that have innovative product ideas.

The idea for the organization emerged in the mid-1990s, when the CIA, having paved the way for a number of technological innovations, suddenly found itself being outspent by the private sector on research and development. "The CIA needed a way to leverage its buying power," Peter Poulos, outreach and business development officer at In-Q-Tel, told the judging panel. "We wanted to access new technology before it was on the shelf. Otherwise, we would be competing with banks and other industries."

When looking at companies to invest in, In-Q-Tel, which has offices in Arlington, Va., and Menlo Park, Calif., focuses on technologies that could be used both by the private sector and government agencies. That approach allows In-Q-Tel to come in as a minor investor, while the private sector bears most of the financial burden.

The organization is particularly interested in data collection, knowledge management, and security and privacy. It does not limit investments to startup companies. Compared with most venture capital firms, In-Q-Tel's investments are fairly modest, ranging from $500,000 to $3 million. And, unlike other firms, the organization does not equate success with return on investment. Rather, an investment is deemed successful if the CIA can actually use the technology, according to Poulos.

Since its creation in 1999, In-Q-Tel has reviewed the business plans of more than 3,000 technology companies. Roughly 75 percent of them have never done business with the federal government. The organization has invested in 40-plus firms, says Poulos. Some of the technology In-Q-Tel has been able to foster includes software that helps track the movement and work of people and organizations, and programs that collect and analyze information in various languages.

"It's a neat idea to have the government function like a venture capitalist," says Allan Burman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and one of this year's judges. "[The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] has been doing this for years, but they are looking at basic research that may in the long run have some application. The CIA is looking at applied research, with a much closer and tighter focus."


Air Defense System Integrator, Air Force

Look through the Defense Department's budget documents and you won't find a reference to the Air Defense System Integrator Joint Working Group. You won't find a program description. You won't even find a line item. For all intents and purposes, the program doesn't exist. Actually, as recently as 1999, the initiative was scheduled for termination.

"Back in the day, ADSI was the redheaded stepchild," Lt. John McAfee, the Air Force manager in charge of ADSI, bluntly told the judges.

At the most fundamental level, ADSI is an information-sharing system. It captures and processes data from radars, satellites and other intelligence systems to give users a real-time assessment of air operations. That means users can see how many planes are in the air and where they are or where certain satellites are. In a battle, ADSI is vital to keeping planes from being shot down by friendly fire.

For years, each of the military services managed their own ADSI systems, which were developed by Austin, Texas-based Advanced Programming Concepts Inc. "The Army would say it needed an ADSI to tie into its radar," McAfee explains. "So, they would contact APC, and the company would develop it and put it into the Army's system."

That system proved extremely inefficient. It resulted in multiple software solutions that were unable to communicate with each other. These and other headaches led Defense officials to put ADSI on the chopping block. But Air Force officials still believed in the system. They teamed up with colleagues from the Army, Navy and Joint Chiefs of Staff to draft an agreement, which put the ADSI under control of a joint working group. No single service would have the lead or be forced to carry the program's continued development on its budget. Rather, they would work as a team to continually upgrade their ADSI capabilities.

Although the Air Force, through McAfee, generally takes the lead on managing ADSI, all the partners share in its development. For instance, during the war in Iraq, the Marines needed to add a function to the software that linked with their radars. Once the program was developed, tested and implemented, it was shared with the other services. In the old days, the Army and Air Force would have been forced to request and pay for their own software upgrades.

"We then got a firm fixed price from the contractor, and it was done," McAfee explains. "The taxpayer is only being charged once."