INNOVATIONS: We Are in an Acquisition War. Contracting Professionals Must Lead It.


By Anne Laurent

These are urgent times for Defense acquisition and contracting professionals. According to a growing number of contracting leaders, we are already in an acquisition war.

 “Acquisition is a tool of war,”[i] you’ll hear. There’s a burning need to “accelerate the acquisition kill chain.”[ii]

This month’s column, by a former soldier, a seaman, and an airman, all turned private sector innovators, puts it simply: We are in an acquisition war, and it will be fought by contracting professionals.

“The global marketplace is a contested domain in which movement, maneuver, and fires are executed through the application of capital and acquisition actions including contracts. In short, U.S. contracting professionals will lead acquisition warfare using complex strategies, integrated operations, and creative tactics,” they write.

In the June INNOVATIONS, James “Hondo” Geurts, then acting Navy Undersecretary, said that acquisition “is absolutely a tool of war.” [iii] In August, you read about the Air Force Acquisition Instructors Course set up in the premier Air Force Weapons School to “recognize acquisition as a weapon system itself.”

“Rapid technological advances and the increasing complexity of tomorrow’s battlespace require operators and acquirers be in constant collaboration to accelerate the acquisition kill chain,” said Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General David Allvin.”[iv]

Contract managers working for the Pentagon are on war footing.

But what of the rest of federal agencies, the state and local governments, and the private sector? Defense contractors feel the fire, certainly. And the world of Silicon Valley, tech startups and venture capitalists, is rapidly waking as Defense customers have come knocking with more and more urgency.

But why should civilian agencies and civilians feel pressed? They aren’t at war with buying and contract teams from other countries, right?

Well, consider just one recent example: last year’s worldwide battle for masks, ventilators, gowns, and other PPE. State and local governments, the hospital and healthcare industry, and all agencies involved in medical and prevention activities sure were battling buyers from other countries for those supplies. So was just about every American household.

We contract in a global marketplace for almost everything we buy. It is contested by nations, criminals, nonstate actors, companies, and individuals. When we fail to strike advantageous deals, don’t train our contractors to improve, miss opportunities to bring in leading suppliers, aren’t the most-favored customers of world-leading companies and innovators, someone else can and will step into the void.

We’re all competing on many technological and other terrains. If we don’t make the right, best, and fastest deals with the right providers, adversary contracting teams will.

Don’t we all own this fight?

We Are in an Acquisition War. Contracting Professionals Must Lead It.

By Tyler Sweatt, Enrique Oti, Leah McCullough, and Jason Knudson

The United States faces a real and growing threat to our national security and stability from peer and near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia. We are engaged in a global competition for technological advantage, the like of which has not been seen since the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Today’s conflict will define geopolitics and the national defense strategy for the next several decades.

There is a major difference between the great power technology competition of today, and the one that took place during the Cold War. The Cold War struggle for technological superiority started with the American use of atomic weapons in the final days of World War II and ended following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Most research, development, and acquisitions in the Cold War era were conducted using government research and development funds within the federal government. Today, most are conducted in the private sector in a global marketplace of capital, companies, talent, and technology. Today, nations compete for access to critical and emerging technologies through what we term “acquisition warfare.”

The global marketplace is a contested domain in which movement, maneuver, and fires are executed through the application of capital and acquisition actions including contracts. In short, U.S. contracting professionals will lead acquisition warfare using complex strategies, integrated operations, and creative tactics. They will be in competition with contract professionals from other nations to win the support of leading companies and technologies to achieve national security objectives.

Acquisition warfare will be fought by contracting professionals.

The New Cold War

To understand the role of contracting professionals in acquisition warfare, we need to understand how we got here.

Following World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union embarked on a protracted competition for technological superiority. One of the milestone moments of the Cold War took place on October 4, 1957, when the USSR launched the Sputnik satellite and kicked off the Space Race. To outpace the Soviets, the U.S. government spent billions of dollars to dramatically expand its scientific infrastructure, and the Defense Department was granted its own substantial research budget. All these resources focused on making game-changing discoveries at a grand scale. Inside the government, research and development focused on a platform-first, hardware-centric approach to capability development. This investment pattern was reinforced as the nation’s build-up met with great success. Ultimately, the Cold War was won, in part, because of America’s superior acquisition efforts.

However, the world is entering a new global competition of technological superiority. China brings to bear a coordinated strategy of cooperation between the defense industry and the private sector called “military-civil fusion.” As a result, we must re-evaluate our acquisition efforts and how we can best arm our contracting professionals. Over the past two decades, the Chinese government moved from imitating and stealing technology to pioneering it. From the local to national levels, its government supports military organizations, state-owned enterprises, and private companies, ensuring that technological innovation advances military and national goals. Similarly, Russia continues to inject complexity and chaos into global nation-state competition, and is making strong advances in cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and hypersonics.

For acquisition professionals, this new cold war footing differs from the old one in one critical fashion: Many of the advancements in technology that are propelling the competition between the United States and China are being developed by the private sector. Governments no longer are competing to create technology; they are competing to acquire technology. As government acquisition systems worked to build capital-intensive weapon systems and to produce revolutionary technical leaps, the commercial markets focused on rapid, incremental innovations, making technologies faster, smaller, cheaper, and more efficient. Success bred more success, and with the rise of venture capital funding, investors took on more risks, resulting in the rapid acceleration of commercial technology.

The Defense Department did not keep pace, and the United States shifted from government-led innovation to corporate-led, changing the relationship between government acquirers and commercial industry. Now, governments compete on multiple technology terrains for access to companies, people, data, research, and intellectual property. Acquirers fight a daily battle to find and adopt emerging technologies. Acquisition delays create opportunities for adversary acquirers to seize technology ground, putting emerging tech beyond DoD’s reach.

Acquisition professionals brought success to our nation during the Cold War. It is time for them to do it again. 

Focusing on Delivery, Not Just Quality

Since the late 1990s, defense acquisitions and contracting have been primarily concerned with quality management and compliance. As a result, the acquisition reforms of the 90s created oversight, and management systems focused on driving up quality, often at the expense of time and cost. Contract professionals stopped competing with the Soviet Union and turned their focus to process improvement, procedural compliance, and program execution. Some members of the acquisitions and contracting communities emphasized compliance with the FAR over executing contracts to support national security objectives. Managing for quality and refining processes are important, but times have changed. The United States must achieve its national security objectives in the global technology market. We need contracting community expertise focused on delivering operational outcomes.

Our nation’s security depends again on contracting professionals—we own this fight. 

Today, the national security advantage goes to the nation that can most effectively control technology domains in the competitive space. Once technologies are secure, contracting professionals work to integrate and deploy them to our warfighters at the speed of relevance. From there, the acquisition community is scanning the technology terrain to identify new opportunities and to leverage the knowledge gained from previous contracts to target the next set of actions. An effective, rapid acquisition kill chain is essential to the success of the national defense strategy. A high-functioning kill chain enhances our ability to prototype and experiment and allows the risk-taking that’s required in a modern approach for acquisition warfare.  As with other domains of warfare, we must test and validate tactics, techniques, and procedures for both offensive and defensive actions. We must seize the initiative in acquiring new technologies, while denying access to our tech terrain and disrupting adversary operations.

The true challenge is to rapidly navigate the modern terrain of the nation’s complex relationship with science and technology.

As in the Cold War, acquisition professionals are leading the charge, yet unlike the Cold War, the linkage to the commercial sector is paramount to the defense of the United States.

Eroding U.S. Overmatch

The National Defense Strategy summary published three years ago captured the acquisition urgency this era requires:

“New commercial technology will change society and, ultimately, the character of war. The fact that many technological developments will come from the commercial sector means that state competitors and non-state actors will also have access to them, a fact that risks eroding the conventional overmatch to which our Nation has grown accustomed. Maintaining the Department’s technological advantage will require changes to industry culture, investment sources, and protection across the National Security Innovation Base.”[v]

The United States is currently engaged in acquisition warfare. Contract professionals hold the keys to U.S. success.

Tyler Sweatt

  • Leads growth at Second Front Systems.
  • Technical advisor at Pallas Advisors, a member of the National Security Advisory Board at CalypsoAI, an advisor at GovCity
  • Advisor at Outland.
  • Previously served as the head of national security at CalypsoAI
  • Founded and sold technology advisory firm Future Tense, and led the emerging technology and security practice at Toffler Associates
  • A graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point
  • Former U.S. Army officer

Enrique Oti

  • Chief technology officer at Second Front Systems
  • entrepreneur in residence at Harpoon VC
  • Served 23 years in the U.S. Air Force as a cyber operations officer and a foreign area officer for China
  • Co-founded the Defense Innovation Unit
  • Founded and commanded the software development unit, Kessel Run
  • Served in the U.S. Pacific Command China Strategic Focus Group
  • Commanded an Intelligence Support Squadron
  • A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, Joint Military Intelligence College, and Zhejiang University.

Leah McCullough 

  • Growth strategy analyst at Second Front Systems
  • Recent two-time graduate from Georgetown University, she focuses on government affairs, international studies, and government policy. Her master’s thesis examined the incentives behind U.S. policy reform

Jason Knudson

  • Vice president of product development at Second Front Systems
  • Member of the board at Catalyst Campus for Technology and Innovation and the Center for Technology, Research, and Commercialization
  • Served in the U.S. Navy in enlisted and officer roles as a cryptologist, submarine nuclear officer, and Special Warfare Combatant Crewman
  • Former chief of staff of the Chief of Naval Operations Rapid Innovation Cell, 7th Fleet Innovation Officer, and project manager at the Defense Innovation Unit

About Second Front Systems

Second Front Systems is a public benefit, venture-backed software company.

[v] Mattis, James, “Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America: Sharpening the American Military’s Competitive Edge,” January 19, 2018,