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Air Force finalizing acquisition process for open architecture

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The Air Force will be finalizing an agreement with a consortium of companies in the next two weeks in hopes of doling out rapid awards around open architecture systems.

The consortium will be part of a new acquisition process that uses an “other transaction agreement” (OTA) between the consortium and the Air Force to circumvent conventional acquisition requirements and award in about three weeks.

In addition to the use of the OTA, the Air Force is able to cut its award time to three weeks by taking advantage of Plug Fests, said Camron Gorguinpour, director of transformational innovation for Air Force’s office of the assistant secretary.

Plug Fests ask companies to build applications around a system architecture. The Air Force uses the fests as a quantitative source selection and therefore eliminates the need for companies to submit white papers.

“This is how we take our acquisition process to a causal kind of walk to a full Olympic type of sprint,” Gorguinpour said during a Nov. 3 Security Innovation Network event in Washington.

Open architecture is a system that can add, upgrade of swap components easily. A commonly used example would be a smartphone, which can easily download an app or delete an app.

“It’s very fast, it’s easy to use, it lets me change out abilities as I need them,” Gorguinpour said.

The Defense Department pushed for the acquisition and use of more open architectures in its most recent acquisition reform policy, Better Buying Power 3.0. Congress also mandated the department in the fiscal 2015 defense authorization act to create a plan that moved toward open architectures in keep mission areas across its acquisition portfolios.

Open architectures allow components to be added, modified, replaced, removed or supported by different vendors throughout the life cycle, states a DoD presentation. The adaptability is especially important when dealing with changing and evolving threats. Picture a service member in a warzone that needs a program to analyze terrain, but then five minutes later may need a downloadable component that can translate English to another language.

The acquisition process used for traditional items, however, is not conducive to the rapid pace of technology or to the whole nature of open architecture.

“When the Defense Department says that it wants to move toward open architecture systems [smartphones] are generally what people are thinking about, the app store model,” Gorguinpour said. “Imagine if I wanted to download the CNN app, but it took me two years to download it and it took two years to get me authorized to use it. I would probably not buy the CNN app or buy the phone because that’s a garbage business model that no one would possibly entertain with a right mind, but this is exactly the business proposition we give to our program managers.”

The Air Force’s new model hopes to give a new, faster vehicle to program managers to acquire open architecture systems and components.

While the Plug Fest model cuts down on the sources sought process, the OTA is not covered by the federal acquisition regulations and therefore is a highly flexible business tool. Any company can join a consortium that has an OTA with DoD.

The department itself is currently using the OTA consortium model to find technologies that can broaden the use of electromagnetic spectrum use.

Open architectures have had some challenges in the past when it comes to intellectual property. When Better Buying Power 3.0 was first released this spring, companies feared DoD would take ownership of their system architecture.

DoD tried to allay those fears by acknowledge there’s a fine line between owning the interfaces and demanding the rights to companies’ hard-earned intellectual property.

“All we’re interested in is architecting our systems so that they’re open, and in order to do that we need the interface rights. So you can keep your black boxes, but I want to know how the data’s exchanged for plug and play. We also need it for the purposes of depot and support and sustainment. So we’re going to look for specific rights too,” Katrina McFarland, the assistant secretary of Defense for acquisition said in April.

Defense acquisition chief Frank Kendall said DoD can’t require companies to sell intellectual property to them, but it is much more attractive to buy something where the department controls the interfaces and can go out and competitions for the subsystems.