Government-Industry Partnership Still Thrives After 60 Years

September 2006
By Duane P. Andrews, chief executive officer, QinetiQ North America, and chairman of the Board of Directors, AFCEA International

Six decades ago, a group of technologists from government and industry established an association dedicated to maintaining “as a contribution to industrial preparedness the splendid liaison and cooperation that existed during the [second World] War.” Now, one Cold War and four hot wars later, the association that these visionaries founded has grown into an international organization that is as relevant and as important as ever.

Much in the same manner as their nation’s founding fathers 170 years earlier, AFCEA’s founding fathers saw a need and supplied the vision for a solution that would last. Their concern was the availability of communications technology for the military. During World War II, the United States was forced to rebuild a long-somnambulant military into an effective fighting force that could defeat two well-armed foes in opposite hemispheres.

While the United States’ humanpower and unchallenged industrial might played a big role in securing that victory, emerging electronics technologies made their mark as well. Many of these came about because of directed government requests to the private sector for specific systems and capabilities. Industry came together to deliver a host of new communications and electronics devices that opened up new avenues of warfare.

AFCEA’s founders were proud of those achievements, but the lessons of complacency were not lost on them. The technology products that emerged from industry during that destructive war were vital for victory, yet many of them did not exist even in the laboratory when war clouds gathered.  And, the innovations that emerged from wartime necessity were about to have a big impact on the commercial market and on society in general. The founders of AFCEA realized that, and they also recognized that maintaining this inventive momentum would benefit both the private sector and government. The synergy of this government-industry alliance could not be allowed to wither away when it offered so much promise for everyone.

This alliance made good on that promise. The consumer market saw a tsunami of new products and technologies that changed society. The constant vigilance that defined the Cold War was supported by new capabilities that emerged from an ongoing partnership among academia, industry and government. Government set its system requirements, and universities and private laboratories performed breakthrough basic research to fulfill those needs. Businesses incorporated that research—along with similar work done in government laboratories—to produce an unending chain of technologically advanced systems designed to maintain Free World military strength against a relentless Cold War foe.

Now, 60 years after the founding of AFCEA, the government-industry relationship has come full circle. In World War II, industry was the font of innovation for communications-electronics technologies. But during most of the Cold War, government was in the driver’s seat when it came to directed research. Either specific new technologies came out of government laboratories or military procurement programs coaxed new systems out of the private sector.

Today, industry once again is the driver for technological change. Government cannot afford to slog years through time-consuming standard procurement processes when it depends on technologies that advance a generation every 18 months. The only way that the Free World can maintain its technological edge over its new foe in the war on terrorism is to drink from the font of the private sector once again.

Our industry is responding in ways that are extraordinary. New technologies and capabilities are emerging across the entire spectrum of communications and electronics. The military is incorporating commercial off-the-shelf systems and technologies to an unprecedented degree. Where government research once fed industry, the commercial marketplace now is feeding military technology needs—just as during World War II.

Despite these oft-shifting winds, AFCEA has remained more than relevant throughout the decades. The dialogue between government and industry that the association fosters may have changed emphases over the years, but it is as important as ever. And, the association’s international nature is even more vital in the ongoing global war on terrorism. AFCEA has distinguished itself and has carved out a unique niche over the past 60 years. It is well positioned to continue to live up to the promise of its founders as it heads into the future.