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News | April 20, 2023

How Small American Businesses are Driving Defense Innovations

By Johannes Schmidt, MCSC Office of Public Affairs and Communication Marine Corps Systems Command

From the earliest days of our nation's history, the relationship between the Armed Forces and small businesses has formed a fundamental pillar of our national economy and defense infrastructure.

"From manufacturers providing the critical parts that we need for our arsenal – to technology companies developing innovative systems and capabilities – small businesses are vital along the entire spectrum of the Department's needs," Deputy Secretary of Defense Dr. Kathleen Hicks recently said in a statement. "Reducing barriers and creating more opportunities for small businesses will allow us to expand, innovate, and diversify, increasing our warfighter advantage, strengthening our supply chains, increasing competition in our marketplace, and growing our economy here at home."

While it might be tempting to assume that the Armed Forces partner exclusively with the multinational defense firms often featured on the evening news, the secretary's statement highlights the importance of the nearly 30 million businesses operating in the United States with revenues ranging from $1 to $40 million and employment numbers from 100 to 1,500: America's small businesses.

Often the unsung heroes of the defense industry, these firms constitute 99.9% of all U.S. businesses and 73% of companies in the defense industrial base. Considering that over 25% of all Department of Defense prime contracts were awarded to small businesses, this number is especially noteworthy.

One key initiative supporting the growth and success of small businesses in the defense sector is Marine Corps System Command’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program.

"The SBIR program, with a history spanning over 40 years, is an essential component of our national defense strategy,” said Jeff Kent, SBIR program manager. “By allocating 3.2% of extramural RDT&E funds across the command, we invest in the potential of small businesses to drive innovation and develop groundbreaking technologies.”

“This collaborative approach not only strengthens our defense capabilities but also fosters economic growth and job creation,” added Tatiana Sears, SBIR deputy program manager. “The SBIR program is a testament to our commitment to nurture and harness the power of American ingenuity for the benefit of our Marine Corps and national security."

Although Marine Corps Systems Command, or MARCORSYSCOM, can officially trace its origins to what was formerly known as Marine Corps Research, Development, and Acquisition Command -- or MCRDAC -- the Corps' acquisitions arm was born, in many ways, with the Congress’ commissioning of six warships through The Naval Act of 1794.

The construction of these six frigates – ostensibly our nation's first Naval fleet – was made possible by the symbiotic relationship that has long existed between Congress and American businesses. Funded by taxpayer dollars, the ships were designed and built by the esteemed Philadelphia shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys. A private citizen and skilled businessman, Humphreys emphasized the importance of American innovation and self-reliance, noting, "The day is past for us to rely upon the assistance of foreigners. We must now be obliged to commit ourselves to our own ingenuity and industry or have no Navy."

Today, the Corps' relationship with small businesses is equally important. It is nurtured and strategically advanced by project officers, engineers, and logisticians who work with American entrepreneurs -- including veteran-owned, service-disabled, HUBZone, small disadvantaged, and women-owned firms-- to offer innovative capabilities to the table while offering low-cost solutions to the taxpayer.

"Our project officers, engineers, and logisticians come up with ideas, which are then vetted through a process where we advertise between six and 10 new topics a year,” said Kent. “Small businesses in the United States can write proposals to compete for the project, and we typically select three firms to work on a phase one project. Those three firms then compete for the phase two project, and we typically select one firm to work on a phase three project without competition."

"Through SBIR’s 24-48 month, three-phase program, we are able to collaborate with small businesses to develop capabilities that are currently needed but do not exist, lower costs of purchase and maintenance, enhance already-in-production gear, reduce risk in developmental systems, and optimize size, weight, power, and safety aspects,” added Sears.

So far, this has involved the creation and deployment of equipment, such as the Tactical Vehicle Brake, the Amphibious Combat Vehicle Exhaust System, and the Expeditionary Portable Oxygen Generator System, among many other innovative new technologies.

Furthermore, the SBIR program helps promote Force Design 2030’s goals by ensuring the Corps can “outpace our adversary, as well as our ability to garner the resources required to keep pace during this period of transformative innovation.”

Ultimately, Sears believes her team’s work is important because it allows American entrepreneurs to serve their country without donning a uniform. After all, by collaborating with MCSC, small business owners – and workers alike—are doing their part to equip the warfighter and ensure the Marine Corps remains the world’s premier fighting force.

“It’s part of the American dream; to utilize business to advance the cause of freedom throughout our country and the world,” she noted. “It’s not necessarily about money; it’s about serving your country and helping defend the things you care about.”

Her perspective highlights the important role that small businesses can play in supporting the Marine Corps and the broader national defense mission. After all, as President Calvin Coolidge told reporters in 1925, “It is only those who do not understand our people who believe that our national life is entirely absorbed by material motives. We make no concealment of the fact that we want wealth, but there are many other things that we want very much more. We want peace and honor, and that charity which is so strong an element of all civilization.”