Project Title: The Air Force Technology Challenge
The use of technological challenges and cash prizes are known to spur rapid, low-cost innovation in a variety of fields (see http://www.challenge.gov). Yet, the Air Force’s use of these acquisition methods has historically been limited to small-scale efforts in areas that are not germane to the Air Force’s core mission. In general, challenge-based acquisitions refers to a competitive process by which an award is given to the organization(s) that achieve or exceed a specified capability within a given timeframe. This is distinctly different from traditional acquisitions that focus on paper-based proposals in determining source selections. Challenge-based acquisitions can be executed as a series of technical milestones that are used to down-select offerors to an ultimate awardee (an example is NASA’s most recent competition for crew and cargo launch services to the International Space Station). Alternately, the challenge can be a cash prize for the first organization(s) to demonstrate a singular capability (an example is DARPA’s Red Balloon Challenge). The Air Force Technology Challenge aims to demonstrate a variety of challenge-based acquisitions of sufficient scope to ultimately affect the acquisition of major weapon systems.
As a starting point, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) launched the Air Force Turbine Prize in May 2015 (see http://www.airforceprize.com). The purpose of this competition is to spur innovation in mid-sized turbine engine technologies, which may ultimately be used in a variety of military and commercial applications. Mid-sized turbine engines will result in a doubling of fuel efficiency and ten-fold improvement in lifecycle costs relative to engines currently available. AFRL is offering $2 million to the first organization that can effectively demonstrate this capability. This is the largest prize competition offered by a military service. Lessons learned from this effort are being used to design larger, more complex challenge-based competitions for the future.