Small Businesses Face Big Challenges in Air Force Contracting

Owl Cyber Defense Chief Technology Officer Brian Romansky and Ryan Smith, president and CEO of IMSAR, take part in a small business panel at AFA's 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md. Staff photo by Mike Tsukamoto.

When it comes to Air Force contractors, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all big companies are big; but each small company is small in its own way. That was the takeaway from a panel at AFA’s 2019 Air, Space & Cyber Conference looking at what small businesses can uniquely offer the service.

Founding executives from a cybersecurity company, a firm that makes advanced radar, and the first commercial air-to-air refueling business in the world took to the stage to discuss the competitive edge that small enterprises can provide—and despite the very different nature of their work, all seemed to agree their biggest challenge as Air Force vendors is the complex and lengthy nature of government decision-making processes.

“If the government takes too long to make up its mind about who it’s going to to award a contract to, it hurts your finances,” explained Ulick McEvaddy, founder and director of Omega Air, which provides commercial air-to-air refuelling services to the U.S. Navy. “You can’t borrow money from the bank because of the uncertainty and it just becomes a huge killer for small businesses.”

When asked what single change in government contracting rules he would make if he were “king for a day,” McEvaddy replied that all Requests for Proposals, or RFPs, should be written in plain English and be no more than 10 pages long—and that decisions on bids should be made within 30 days. Otherwise, he said, “This whole business of long, drawn-out acquisition programs is really hurting small businesses.”

He pointed out that, in 1952, Gen. Curtis LeMay made a decision to buy the B-52 from Boeing within three weeks.

Ryan Smith, president and CEO of IMSAR, which makes advanced radar for the US military, agreed that long, uncertain processes are a big problem. Once the company has a contract, he said, “We get paid pretty quickly.

“But the problem is the going from contract to contract. It’s those breaks,” he added. Smith explained that long periods of uncertainty are “Very, very painful We can’t let our people go,” he said, so it is hard to reduce overhead. “Over and over again, as a company, we’ve had to eat all our cash like that,” he concluded.

And set asides and carve outs like Other Transaction Authority or Small Business Innovation Research programs aren’t necessarily the answer, he added, because sooner or later you have to transition to a regular program of record with all the requirements that has.

If he were “king for a day,” Owl Cyber Defense CTO Brian Romansky said he would end disparate regulatory requirements for cybersecurity.

“On the regulatory side, one of the challenges we face is different regulations among the different military services and with the intelligence world and so some harmonization .. would be helpful,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper suggested that the service should find another way of describing small business. “I don’t like calling them small businesses,” he said, adding the nomenclature made it sound “like they don’t do big things.”