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​Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson listens to Col. Mike McGinley, Air Force Defense Innovation Unit-Boston lead, during a presentation April 4. Discussion centered on the best ways to leverage commercial innovation for national defense. Air Force photo by Mark Herlihy.

A revived push for commercial technology is underway within the Air Force, but the service has more to learn before it can make the most of that industry.

From apps and cloud infrastructure to small drones and satellites, the Defense Department is starting to explore the options offered by rapidly evolving, digital-savvy companies that are more attuned to the needs of everyday consumers and the private sector than they are the military.

“Our healthiest industrial sectors are those where defense and commercial sectors are integrated and overlapping,” Andrew Hunter, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group, said. “We err if [we] set up approaches that seek to divide or divorce the defense and commercial sectors. We tend to do a lot of this, either on the government side by setting up barriers to entry to the defense sector, or on the commercial side by trying to wall off technology from DOD.”

New possibilities are raised often: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson recently spoke about the need to tap into the commercial satellite communications industry alongside its foray into commercial launch, but noted that those systems aren’t a one-for-one substitute for more “complex architectures” and “will result in failure on America’s worst day if we rely upon them alone.”

US Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten similarly said that while commercial capabilities will become part of the next nuclear command, control, and communications architecture, they can’t be the only option in case of emergency.

In addition to building commercial components into high-end aircraft, the service is also trying its hand at designing new networks to handle missions like battle management that could incorporate commercial parts. So how could the Air Force piece together military-grade and commercial tech to create architectures that meet mission needs?

First, the service needs to understand commercial technologies as well as companies do.

“We have to do sort of early-stage research to know where we can push this,” Air Force Chief Scientist Richard Joseph said in a recent interview. “We need to be developing experts in these technologies who are capable of, in some cases, constructing our own network, [and] in other cases, modifying an existing network.”

That represents a shift from traditional acquisition processes: “If we want to modify something, we have to go back to the vendor, and going back to the vendor means we go through this whole chain of contracts and procurement and that’s very time consuming,” Joseph said.

The Air Force is rethinking its approach to intellectual property so it can update software to meet new needs without having to rely on the original manufacturer or go through a drawn-out contracting process. It has also modernized its outreach and contracts to small and commercial businesses to draw them in.

“The primary advantage of using commercial products and services in defense is to leverage private-sector [research and development] and supply chains so that DOD doesn’t have to ‘reinvent the wheel’ every time it buys a new product or service,” Hunter said. “By streamlining the process for acquiring commercial items, the acquisition system can create an incentive for the military to use commercial products and services rather than military-unique items.”

Commercial products could particularly help the Defense Department in information technology, electronics, and space, in addition to their traditional use as a source of aircraft and engine parts, according to Hunter.

He expects ordnance, missiles, and naval shipbuilding are the least likely to include commercial aspects. DOD should explore more commercial opportunities in space, unmanned aircraft, and the biotechnology sectors, Hunter added.

Bill LaPlante, a former Air Force acquisition executive who is now senior vice president for national security at MITRE Corp., says some technologies that will be key to fighting wars with advanced nations—like artificial intelligence, data analytics, and 5G networks—will never come from the traditional military-industrial complex. Maintenance can also benefit from commercial processes and products.

“I think they’re trying everywhere they can,” he said of the Air Force’s foray into those areas.

But an adversary can likely access the same commercial products the US buys, so the Air Force has to find ways to stay one step ahead of the competition.

“There are some who would advocate actually reducing the amount of technology development and scientific research that the Air Force does and put the money into buying things,” Joseph said. “Then all you need is somebody who can go out and find the thing you want and buy it. … If [the adversary] can field it faster than we can, then they’ll always be ahead of us.”

LaPlante argues DOD needs to worry more about protecting the data it feeds into software rather than having unique apps altogether.

A recent acquisition reform report recommended the Pentagon split its purchases into three categories: development of “defense-unique” products that would serve only the military, products and services that are “readily available” as-is, and those available products that DOD would need customized.

When putting the three types of products together, the Air Force must ensure the overall network is robust enough—and cybersecure enough—to function in a combat environment or when under attack.

“The first thing is to ask how this is going to be used,” Joseph said. “What is the environment this will be used in and what’s the difference between the commercial environment and the military environment? … If you wanted a system that operated through a nuclear environment, then … you’re going to scrutinize commercial products very carefully and test them for that environment.”

He added that as new technologies are created all the time, the Air Force has to consider how it can evolve alongside commercial industry. “Can you live with an older type of technology that’s five years old?” Joseph said.

It’s hard to predict how buying from the private sector could affect costs in the long run—convenience may bear its own price tag, LaPlante said. But he believes it’s still worthwhile even if DOD saves less than expected.

The Air Force could use a Rapid Capabilities Office focused on commercial tech, LaPlante suggested. If the RCO handles a few programs well, others will come to it for help.

“You could get some type of a Skunk Works shop … that has your [contracting] gurus and it has your Jedis,” LaPlante said. “Create an RCO for commercial, filled with these experts, and people will go to them if they’re really good.”