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The international community is reeling after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, leaving no doubt of Russia’s intention to take control of Ukraine in its entirety. While NATO countries, including the United States, have clearly articulated the intention to only intervene through economic sanctioning and material support to the Ukrainian military, the looming question of US readiness to support its allies and intervene militarily linger on the fringes of the American public psyche.  

Questions and Concerns Prior to the Invasion 

To say that concern over US Defense capability gaps against Russia is a new consideration would be patently false. Indeed, The National Defense Strategy (2018) highlighted Russia’s “cyber espionage, influence, and attack” as a “threat to the United States and our allies”. However, the NDS failed to sufficiently identify the implications and risks presented by the prospect of a more traditional military confrontation with Russia. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine elevates the urgency of such considerations.  

How will our current military technological capabilities match up against Russia in a direct confrontation?  

What weaknesses or gaps exist in our capabilities?  

How do we address those gaps expediently, should the US be required to take military action against Russia?  

The risk of Russia moving over Ukrainian borders into one of the neighboring NATO  countries transforms these questions from those of a theoretical scenario to that of a real-world possibility.    

Key Technology Gaps 

In their 2021 publication, “Competing with Russia Militarily”, , the Rand Corporation opined that “Although Russia has limited global power-projection capability, it can quickly bring decisive force to bear on its borders”.3 While current NATO strategy does not call for military intervention in Ukraine’s war with Russia, Russia’s capability as a formidable opponent in theater necessitates both forward thinking and action in preparation for such a potential outcome among the US Defense Acquisitions Community.

In Rand’s assessment, one of the key US and NATO vulnerabilities against Russia  is their “modernized electronic warfare, cyber, and counterspace capabilities tailored to undermine NATO’s technical advantages”.4 Key technology gaps identified by Rand’s assessment include: 

  • cybersecurity against network attacks 
  • signals jamming 
  • counterspace capabilities 
  • nuclear defense.  

How SBIR Can Address These Gaps? 

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Open Topic administered by AFWERX has generated a significant population of US small businesses that could address many of these gaps and are qualified to sell swiftly and directly to the US Military under the sole-source authority afforded by an SBIR Phase I award.  

Traditionally, SBIR topics identified specific technological capabilities and requirements that limited the number of new companies and technologies introduced to the US Military as potential vendors. AFWERX’s Open Topic eliminated this specificity, serving as an “all call” for US tech companies with fewer than 500 employees to make their case for how their products could support the warfighter. 

 What is revolutionary about AFWERX’s approach is that it has served to identify technological capabilities that the US Air Force did not know to ask for, generating greater access to the most innovative technology that is commercially available in the US today. Much like the US industrial complex was a crucial factor in US success in WWII, the agility of small businesses to adapt their products to the specific needs of the US military makes them a crucial asset to addressing capability gaps against Russia today.   

Benefits of Sole Source Authority 

There are many benefits to the use of this contracting vehicle, particularly the ability to shorten acquisition timelines from years to months or even weeks in comparison to the traditional competitive process. In an era where quick acquisitions of the latest and greatest defense technology advances may become a vital part of our strategy in a direct military confrontation with Russia, the ability to get needed tools into the hands of the warfighter as quickly and efficiently as possible is paramount. 

To best close key technology gaps through SBIR companies awarded under the US Air Force Open Topic, an increase in resources for AFWERX will be vital. As awareness of the program increases and more companies submit their technologies for consideration, it has become difficult for the understaffed AFWERX team to keep up with award volumes round after round. More funding and labor are vital to helping the AFWERX team efficiently and effectively review submissions to quickly identify and award contracts for Phase I, Phase II, TACFI (Tactical Funding Increase), and STRATFI (Strategic Funding Increase)  that allow companies to steadily progress in the adaptation of their technology to the US Air Force needs.  

The Need for Education Among Defense Acquisitions  

Additionally, increased education among Defense acquisitions on the SBIR program and the sole-source contracting process is vital. Great organizations like RapidX are working to bridge the knowledge gap between US Air Force units interested in purchasing a SBIR-derived technology and contracting offices, but this often slows or even halts the acquisition process as contracting officers are hesitant to leverage a tool they are unfamiliar with. Increased visibility would alleviate contracting shop concerns and provide a roadmap for administering the contracting process in accordance with all ethical and legal requirements.   

Moving Forward  

When recalling the possibility of war between France and Germany in 1923, Winston Churchill said 

“No one would do such things. Civilization has climbed above such perils. The interdependence of nations in trade and traffic, the sense of public law, the Hague Convention, Liberal principles, the Labour Party, high finance, Christian charity, common sense have rendered such nightmares impossible. Are you quite sure? It would be a pity to be wrong. Such a mistake could only be made once—once for all.”

History has already taught us that such nightmares are far from impossible. We have an obligation to anticipate threats and leverage every resource to mitigate them. Just as we mobilized the US industrial base in WWII to achieve victory and preserve our way of life, we may be called upon to leverage the US technological base to do so again. By embracing innovative approaches to defense acquisitions, we ensure access to the best technology possible for our warfighter.