HIGH LEVEL CONTACT: Kristjan Prikk, right, Estonian ambassador to the United States, met with U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Timothy Gowen, the adjutant general for the Maryland National Guard, in Baltimore, Maryland. (Photo by Enjoli Saunders)
How the National Guard can be DOD’s secret weapon for capturing cutting-edge technology.
by Lt. Col. Benjamin Posil
“The value of an idea lies in the using of it.”—Thomas Edison
After the fall of the Iron Curtain, DOD put the National Guard at the forefront of a program tasked with building relationships between the United States and recently independent former Soviet republics. National Guard “weekend warriors” may have been an unlikely choice to lead the diplomatic charge into the Eastern Bloc, but the resulting State Partnership Program (SPP) has proven to be a resounding success. By applying this low-key, low-cost model inward toward domestic industry partners, DOD can leverage the same construct for a different kind of programmatic “diplomacy”—building partnerships with small and innovative companies. This Innovation Program would use the proven State Partnership Program model to harness cutting-edge innovation, creating a “win-win-win” that benefits DOD, state economies and local innovators.
The State Partnership Program initiative pairs U.S. states with partner nations, with the original goal to “create constructive relationships between state National Guards and the newly independent countries of the former Soviet Union,” according to a Breaking Defense article from August 2020. The success of this program in Eastern Europe led to a global expansion that now includes bilateral partnerships with 90 countries. The SPP coordinates nearly 1,000 bilateral events every year and has become a strategic “game changer” according to Adm. Craig Faller, a former U.S. Southern Command commander. The fact the program develops mutually beneficial bilateral partnerships that focus on far more than just warfighting capability has generated access to partners who otherwise would have been unable or unwilling to support conventional military-to-military engagements with the United States.
With no more than two dedicated billets per partnership, and a minimal operational budget (approximately $200,000 per state), the State Partnership Program is purposely lean. The program leverages bilateral affairs officers who are embedded with partner nations to facilitate direct coordination between the state and the partner nation. In addition, SPP directors are a part of general staffs at the state level, providing direct access to senior decision-makers and enabling a close relationship between the state and the partner nation. The streamlined oversight and prioritized access result in strategically impactful exercises, training events and exchanges. It also provides a model that the DOD should replicate to promote innovation.
THE NATIONAL GUARD OPTION
Local National Guards are state-level resources that answer to governors or functional equivalents when not activated in a federal status. The vast majority of the “citizen Soldiers” who make up the National Guard ranks live and work in the same communities where they serve. They know the areas, utilize the schools, patronize the businesses and serve in the governments. Unlike active-duty service members who frequently change localities, National Guard personnel can and often do spend their entire military career within a single state. The connection that National Guard personnel have to their communities is unique for military organizations. Both their knowledge of the local communities as well as their vested interest in seeing those communities succeed would be uniquely advantageous for a Guard-run Innovation Program.
The duality of the National Guard’s mission results in a federal military force working at the direction of local state authority. For small-scale innovators, state Guards can provide access to the DOD system that would otherwise be out of reach. National Guard units utilize the same equipment as their active-duty counterparts, go to the same schools for training, operate bases that have the same requirements and function in a manner that is practically identical to active units. What this means for small-scale innovators with solutions to DOD-wide problems is that state National Guards become a much more accessible outlet for partnering than the federal military. The innovation officer could become the conduit through which local business can interact with the military at the state level, saving the hassle of navigating the larger DOD system (i.e., federal), at least initially. The military needs a mechanism to facilitate this link and the Innovation Program would be an impactful solution.
MODEL INNOVATION PROGRAM
The following model illustrates what a proposed National Guard Innovation Program would look like. Each state would have an innovation officer who functions in a capacity similar to the current State Partnership Program directors. Instead of facilitating relationships with an external, foreign partner, the innovation officer focuses on building relationships with local industry partners. They manage the program and work directly with senior Guard leadership at the state level for guidance and advocacy while the National Guard Bureau would provide policy and guidance for the program as they do for the State Partnership Program.
The innovation officer would be a new, full-time billet operating under Title 32 (i.e., federally funded, controlled by state) authority just like other National Guard “full timers” at the state level. Their primary duties would include liaising with local industry, educating business on the new innovation-focused opportunities, and facilitating access to the National Guard’s Innovation Program initiative. They also would be responsible for overseeing the application process for DOD-funded grants, which would be the foundational “carrot” made available to incentivize local innovator involvement. Applications for the grants would be received, reviewed by local National Guard leadership and competitively awarded based on programmatic criteria and TAG (The Adjutant General; i.e., head of individual state National Guard forces) priorities. The final step in the innovation officer’s duties would be to oversee the portfolio of small innovation grants after they are awarded to local innovators.
A two-tiered grant system would provide the recommended primary structure for the program. Tier I grants would be valued at $50,000 to $100,000 and allocated proportionally by total personnel in a given state’s formation. Along with the grant, the recipient firm also would receive dedicated support, coordination and advocacy from that state’s National Guard, generating the “foot in the door” that small businesses often struggle to achieve with DOD. Allocating one grant to local companies per every 1,000 National Guard personnel is a reasonable ratio to use as a reference, though the actual apportioning of grants can be scaled based on budgetary or programmatic considerations. The intent would be to draw from viable candidates across a given state, ensuring the focus remains on capturing potential utility for DOD.
To be clear, Innovation Program grants would not equate to purchase orders, nor the program itself an alternate outlet for acquisitions. Instead, the combination of grant money and dedicated, sustained coordination between the military and the innovators would create DOD’s own geographically dispersed innovation incubator. Much like the government offering an internship to a matriculating student, there would be no commitment for the National Guard to “hire” that company after the initial investment of time and resources. With that said, the program would be structured to cultivate small companies with promising, DOD-relevant innovations, in a mutually beneficial way that maximizes the likelihood that DOD will be able to harvest innovative products that provide needed capabilities.
Twelve to 18 months after initial implementation, companies that received Tier I grants would be able to compete for a smaller number of Tier II grants. Tier II grants include a slightly larger funding amount (approximately $200,000) and allow for the continuation and maturation of innovations that proved promising during the Tier I trial period. Since this program would ultimately only look to capture commercial-off-the-shelf solutions, “maturation” in this case would be limited to minor refinements and realization of cost-related efficiencies. Total costs of the Innovation Program can be quantified using the Maryland National Guard as a reference.
The Maryland National Guard has roughly 5,000 total service members across the state, including both those in the Army and Air National Guards. Using the reference ratio of service members to grants, this equates to five Tier I grants (one per 1,000 service members), and one additional billet for an innovation officer. Assuming an approximately 2-to-1 ratio for Tier I to Tier II grants, the Maryland National Guard also would qualify for two additional Tier II grants ($200,000 per grant). The total cost of those five Tier I grants, two Tier II grants, one full-time additional innovation officer billet, and associated expenses adds up to less than $1 million annually. From a return-on-investment standpoint, the actual investment is relatively minimal.
The real value of the Innovation Program is in the realization of return on DOD’s investment. Using the Maryland National Guard example, the state’s proximity to numerous DOD facilities along with a number of other factors (access to top-tier universities, significant defense industry presence, etc.) mean that the state has thousands of small businesses already operating in specialties that have relevant applications for DOD. The Maryland Guard could work with these companies and, using the tiered grants as a catalyst, generate utility from their innovations that benefits both the Maryland National Guard and the larger DOD. The value realized from any one of those grants resulting in a “hit” for DOD could easily exceed the cost of the state’s entire program.
One of the benefits of this model is that it allows DOD to surge funding to states that have a competitive advantage in areas of particular need. Texas, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York have the largest National Guards in the United States. Each of these states has industries, geography and business cultures that uniquely position them to support initiatives that align with various DOD priorities. Capturing innovative IT developments in California or Texas, industrial developments in Ohio or Pennsylvania, or finance-related technology in New York would afford DOD access to the most advanced developments in each these areas, some of which inevitably have defense-related applications. Additionally, smaller National Guards from states with highly specialized units, like those in Vermont, West Virginia and Oregon, can be leveraged to focus on innovation opportunities in specific niche areas. The service-members-to-grants ratio can be adjusted to capture more representation from localities that are likely to have pioneering technologies in areas of specific need, such as space, cyber, natural disaster response or aviation.
Working directly with the military at the state level provides a number of advantages for both DOD as well as the local innovators. The state National Guards have similar needs as the larger active forces but are better positioned to identify targeted solutions. They are often more capable of quickly leveraging a standing pool of resources required for testing and evaluation. They also benefit from a compressed approval process. Achieving proof of concept can be reached in an expedited timeline via the National Guard compared with active-duty forces.
Another benefit is that National Guards are more capable of connecting with local industry. Guard members have a unique understanding of their local state’s competitive advantages and organic resources. They also have a much more direct line of communication with local stakeholders than DOD, resulting in greater responsiveness and expedited outcomes. The fact that National Guard personnel often spend much of their lives in the same areas they are stationed allows for a level of awareness and accessibility that is especially relevant for capturing quickly evolving technologies.
The Innovation Program model also helps to bridge the incentive gap that exists between innovators whose livelihood depends on the success of their business today and DOD, whose innovation adoption timeline is often measured in years. From the DOD perspective, the fact that the Innovation Program would be managed at the state level allows for a straightforward method of comparing results from different states. The respective programs can be evaluated and the states that demonstrate the most successful record of delivering innovation rewarded with expanded programs and national recognition.
Incentive for successful innovation is also realized at the state level. As the local lead, the innovation officer has significant personal interest in achieving meaningful innovation progress. The state National Guards “own” the program and can leverage a successful program to garner additional resources and visibility. Because they are the champions for a specific innovation, the state is able to take the lead for implementation across the entire DOD. A successful program not only enhances the standing of a state’s National Guard but also generates economic growth for that area, incentivizing political prioritization of the program. Ultimately, a successful innovation program benefits stakeholders at the local, state and DOD levels.
Despite the significant potential reward to DOD, this initiative still carries elements of risk. The reality that the innovation officer is the singular entry point for the program at the state level is the most prominent concern. An unqualified, unmotivated or underperforming officer serving in that role not only impedes innovation in the near term but erodes overall credibility for that state’s program moving forward. But there are ways of minimizing this concern.
One mitigating factor already built into the system is that the higher-profile nature of the position becomes a de facto filter. Demonstrated achievers within a state’s Guard are more likely to gravitate to the position, as they currently do with the State Partnership Program. Additionally, the innovation officer’s role as the sole manager of the program means that their performance will be conspicuously on display. Poor performance can be quickly identified, and personnel changes made to optimize benefit. A requirement for program management training would be essential, along with at least a basic introduction to fiscal law and the federal government’s acquisition process. This combination would help ensure that those managing the program have a fundamental understanding of key management principles.
Given the projected costs, it is certain that there will be significant risk associated with securing funding for the program. By extrapolating the formula applied in the Maryland National Guard example across all state Guards, it can be deduced that the cost of a fully inclusive Innovation Program is roughly $88 million (based on approximately 440,000 National Guard members nationwide). Realistically, however, a smaller-scale program that places programs in select states or regions would allow for meaningful return on investment while still allowing for the program to be scaled nationally, mirroring the evolution of the State Partnership Program.
Funding from both research and development (R&D) and operations and support “pots” could be reprogrammed to support the innovation program in a minimally impactful way. The Innovation Program is inherently R&D in nature, but exclusively focused on small-scale projects. By taking ownership of the smallest programs in development, the Innovation Program would allow larger program offices to shift their focus to higher-profile efforts. The reallocation of funding to the Innovation Program would be offset by increased efficiencies for the established, conventional program offices. Integrating this program with the Small Business Innovation Research or Small Business Technology Transfer would provide access to existing funding sources and authorities, greatly simplifying the implementation of this program.
A reduction in operational requirements may also lead to available funding for the Innovation Program. As an example, the Army is moving toward reducing the pace of combined training center (CTC) rotations for their operational units. One training center alone can cost up to $25 million, so the cost savings garnered from just one canceled rotation would be enough to fund a pilot for the Innovation Program. This is not to advocate for a cancellation of combined training center rotations; they serve a critical role in maintaining operational readiness. If the decision to scale back CTCs is made, however, even a small portion of the funding would be enough to initiate this program. Once the program achieves proof of concept, follow-on support can be included in the program objective memorandum (likely through the National Guard Bureau) and the program formalized as part of the National Defense Authorization Act.
Regardless of where funding comes from, program champions at the flag level will need to focus on the investment aspect of this initiative. Despite the requisite investment, this program would lead to a net cost savings for the federal government, secondary economic benefit for states and a more capable military. Only when Congress understands this, however, will the potential value be compelling enough to gain support.
By establishing the Innovation Program, DOD can leverage the National Guard in a manner that mirrors the State Partnership Program. The disproportionate “bang for the buck” that the State Partnership Program has realized through bilateral partnerships can similarly be garnered by DOD via investment in local industry. This initiative relies on a small footprint of National Guard resources to find cutting-edge innovation in local communities and harness it for the purpose of enhancing DOD capabilities. The National Guard can utilize the Innovation Program to capture groundbreaking technology at the state level in a way that benefits federal, state and military stakeholders.
For more information on the State Partnership Program, go to https://www.nationalguard.mil/leadership/joint-staff/j-5/international-affairs-division/state-partnership-program/.
COL. BENJAMIN POSIL is a security cooperation professional with more than 15 years’ experience in the field. He is a lieutenant colonel in the Maryland Army National Guard, currently serving at J-4, logistics. He has earned MBA degrees from the University of South Carolina and Wirtschaftuniversität Wien in Vienna, Austria, along with an M.S. in international relations from Troy State University. He also has a B.A. in international relations and Latin American studies from the University of Delaware. He is an Acquisition Corps member, a Level III-certified program manager with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security), and is currently enrolled at the Eisenhower School as an M.S. in National Security Resource Strategy candidate.