In my previous article, Acquiring Innovation: Rediscovering OTA Contracts, I discussed the broad benefits of Other Transaction Authority (OTA) acquisitions, specifically in the realm of military training technology acquisition. This discussion stems from the ongoing conversation around the need for more rapid, innovative acquisition within the DoD, which has been an ongoing theme at industry tradeshows for the last few years. OTAs tackle that challenge by creating a shorter pipeline making necessary innovation more readily available for our defense department.
In this article, I’ll discuss OTA acquisitions from a practical, hands-on perspective, and I’ll highlight some keys to success for businesses interested in solving military training challenges through OTAs.
While OTA acquisitions have been around for some time, recent authorities granted to contracting organizations are resulting in expanded use of OTAs. These OTA opportunities can be released and managed directly by government contracting organizations or, more commonly, by management consortiums. Specific to military training, new consortiums have been forming over the last few years to manage the OTA process, to include the C5 consortium (established in 2014) and, more recently, the Training and Readiness Accelerator (TReX) (established in 2017). Each consortium requires participating businesses apply for membership and pay a fee, but each varies in application process, membership costs, and the specific requirements related to each consortium’s technology area. Despite these differences, each consortium’s approach to the OTA process is generally the same.
Figure 1 outlines the C5 consortium’s process for OTA acquisition. After identifying the government customer’s requirement, the consortium releases a Request for White Papers (RWP) that defines the requirement and evaluation criteria. These RWPs are similar to formal Requests for Proposals (RFPs), but are typically less structured and require responses to meet relatively low page count targets. In responses to the RWP, interested vendors submit white papers to the consortium for customer evaluation. Based on a review of the RWP responses a vendor (or, in some cases, multiple vendors) is selected to receive a Request for Proposal (RFP). Proposal responses are then evaluated, a vendor(s) is selected, and a contract is awarded.
As an example of this process in action, JANUS recently participated in an OTA acquisition with the C5 consortium to develop innovative Augmented Reality (AR) technologies to enhance Sensitive Site Exploitation (SSE) operations training for biological threats. Current SSE training capabilities are limited by the breadth of information military personnel must learn, the time they have to learn it, and opportunities to practice or refresh their training in real world settings. JANUS’ AR solution provides pre-deployment and refresh training and will provide visual, verbal, and haptic feedback cues to guide/instruct the operator during training and operations engaging the operator at the point of need leading to higher levels of skill retention for longer periods.
As this requirement will close a crucial military training gap, the OTA acquisition process was selected to expedite the rapid prototyping and fielding of the AR training capability. The C5 consortium released an RWP to rapidly prototype and acquire the required technology, and JANUS submitted a white paper that was then selected for continuation in the process. The government customer then provided a formal RFP based on JANUS’ selected whitepaper and evaluated the proposal for award.
When compared to most DoD contracting processes, the OTA process is typically simpler and faster. When all goes well, low-cost projects (under $50M) can go from RWP to award in 90 days. In practice, the timelines vary based on factors like the number of white papers and proposals received, the complexity of the technology area and specific solutions, and ultimately, the number of contracts issued. Much like the traditional contracting process, funding obligations or mid-stream requirements changes impact the OTA process, and there is often variation based on the government customer involved. In the case of JANUS’ Augmented Reality training development effort, the process has undoubtedly been more efficient than a traditional FAR-based acquisition. Recently, the military training community has seen some OTAs canceled altogether due to funding or requirements changes that occurred in parallel with the OTA process.
As the popularity of OTAs increase across the military training community of interest, vendors need to go into the process with measured expectations. While there are clear benefits and efficiencies gained from the more streamlined OTA process, OTAs are not without their flaws. It’s important that vendors pay attention to funding, schedule, and requirements fluctuations that can impact the process and adapt to changes as they come.