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News > Air Force looks at bigger role for small business
Air Force looks at bigger role for small business

Posted 4/6/2009   Updated 4/6/2009 Email story   Print story


by Chuck Paone
66th Air Base Wing Public Affairs

4/6/2009 - HANSCOM AIR FORCE BASE, Mass. -- The Air Force is looking to support small businesses in a big way, two top service officials said during a visit here April 2.

David Van Buren, principal deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, and Ronald Poussard, director of Air Force Small Business Programs, said during a joint interview that the Air Force acquisition community is redoubling efforts to reach out to small companies.

"We want to bring small businesses in, not because somebody set some percentage goal and said 'that's what you need to do,' but because they add value to the mission and value to the warfighter," Mr. Poussard said. This is the key message behind his 'Beyond Goals' initiative, which seeks to remove the "check-the-block" mentality often associated with small business outreach.

Innovation, agility, responsiveness and efficiency are just some of the attributes that make small business contributions so valuable, according to both men. They also touted the benefits of increasing vendor supply.

"We don't have enough competition now," Mr. Van Buren said. "Growing these innovative small businesses will help us rectify that by increasing the industrial base."

He also noted that small business, perhaps more than any time in recent memory, needs the government's help now.

"This is all very serious stuff," Mr. Van Buren said. "And it's made even more serious by the current economic crisis."

He said that small businesses are "under attack," noting that finding the funding they need to develop their products is much harder now than during normal times.

"If large companies of the country are having difficulties, and lending is a big issue for them, can you imagine what a small business is going through?" he asked.

The Air Force currently does about $9 billion of business a year with small companies, a number which has held fairly steady for many years, according to Mr. Poussard. As a portion of overall Air Force contracting, that number trends to about 15 percent, rising and falling in concert with the size and number of high-dollar contracts awarded in a given year. 

However, it's that percentage-based measuring that the Air Force wants to move beyond. What these officials would rather measure are the substantive contributions to Air Force systems being made by smaller firms. 

"We're not talking about the small businesses that provide base services like sweeping the floors or cutting the grass," Mr. Van Buren said. "We're talking about the small businesses that provide innovative technology and engineering. It's incumbent on us to grow these companies to participate in the current and future direction of the Air Force. 

"Why? Because that's where 60-80 percent of American innovation comes from, and we need that innovation." 

Mr. Van Buren praised Air Force Research Laboratory Commander Maj. Gen. Curtis Bedke for conducting industry days that let small businesses know the Air Force is interested. He added that the Air Force is already bringing a lot of small businesses in at the early stages of research and development. 

The next step is to get them plugged into the more mature stages of development and production. That's why SAF/AQ is now requiring large prime contractors and its own program executive officers to provide monthly updates on the steps they're taking to accomplish this goal. 

"You've got to have a forcing mechanism," Mr. Van Buren said. "Otherwise, it's human nature to look at the big picture and past things like this." 

A cultural shift is required, Mr. Poussard said. "We've got to make sure PEOs and program managers see this as more than a numbers game." 

Both men said they believe current PEOs do see the value in drawing more small companies into the mix. Mr. Van Buren said Lt. Gen. Ted Bowlds, the PEO for command and control and combat support and also the commander of the Electronic Systems Center, headquartered here, is one such leader. 

"General Bowlds is a great supporter of these efforts and has a very strong feel for it," he said. He also added that small-business outreach is particularly important at Hanscom, both because of its cyber-related acquisitions and because of the base's proximity to the Boston-area technology corridor. 

ESC has already produced the kind of substantive small business inclusion the service is looking for, Mr. Poussard said. He cited, as a prime example, the recent $90 million award of the Modeling and Simulation Training Toolkit to a capable small firm. 

These sorts of efforts produce a genuine win-win, both officials said. 

"These companies need opportunities to show what they can do and to develop their good ideas," Mr. Van Buren said. "At the same time, we have so many niche areas needing to be filled. What we're looking for is that perfect blend."

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