Since it opened for business nearly three years ago, L3Harris Technologies’ message to the defense market has been that “business as usual” won’t cut it in the competitive environment of the future or even today.
Just take a look at all the ways L3Harris has spoken of itself as the industry’s “Sixth Unconventional Prime Minister” — a catchphrase that has both honed in on its size compared to the five largest US defense hardware companies and how the company wants to do things differently. .
Two announcements from L3Harris this year further illustrate the point: a partnership with venture capital firm Shield Capital to work with and invest in promising technology startups, and the official unveiling of the Agile Development Group to accelerate new systems.
The company is ranked 10th in Washington’s Top 100 Technology Companies for 2022 with more than $4 billion in key contracts.
Speaking with L3Harris CEO Sean Stackley about the big idea behind those moves, he referred to a second identity the company is promoting — the “trusted cause-and-effect” of the US military and its allies in technology adoption and advancement.
Acting as a “trusted breaker” in some cases means looking at the problems facing industry and companies alike with a clean sheet of paper to begin with.
“You have to embrace things like digital engineering, open systems engineering,” said Stackley, Head of Integrated Mission Systems.
“Open Systems is not just a technical framework, it’s also a working relationship with the customer,” added the former Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Research, Development and Acquisition.
Systems development is certainly a joint effort between companies like L3Harris and their DoD clients, but the companies must also be working on the next big thing.
Stackley told me that L3Harris spends roughly 4% of its annual revenue on independent research and development projects. He added that the ADG entity has about $1 billion in sales but has dotted lines for each of the company’s businesses.
Both the Shield partnership and the Agile Development Group have key technology areas of priority, but those areas will inevitably expand into other areas and overlap those initiatives, Stackley said.
Stackley said the first four main areas of L3Harris-Shield collaboration are cybersecurity, aerospace, artificial intelligence, and autonomy. The focus of that partnership is on dual-use technologies, or those that have been proven in commercial markets and can be scaled up for defense programs.
Even with all the talk and advances in artificial intelligence in recent years, Stackley described that technical ability as “an area in which I think we’re all growing: we’re the defense industry.”
“It’s a bit of a new field, but it’s one in which the nation needs to move forward quickly to be able to deal openly with the Chinese threat,” Stackley said.
Stackley called for the ADG team’s priorities including advanced kinetic and non-kinetic weapons systems, digital aperture technology, and autonomy and unmanned ground for all potential conflict areas.
Autonomy and unmanned is a clear area of overlap between L3Harris’ work with Shield to find tech startups in the field and what ADG is working on in AI.
The end goal, Stackley said, is not just autonomous ships, but the ability of those platforms to carry out a mission on their own.
The ambition he described can be found in the Navy’s ongoing work to develop the concept of operations for unmanned surface ships, for which the branch wants to possess a wide range of capabilities including maintaining itself at sea.
But that’s not why there are unmanned surface ships, Stackley said, “it’s the job that they have to be able to perform while keeping to themselves.”
L3Harris believes that part of the answer in getting these platforms to work primarily on their own could come from ADG’s work on open systems architecture and digital architecture, both of which point to a desire to share growing technologies on and off the ship as needed.
As for the amount of time L3Harris talks about being the “trusted causer”, it also certainly appears that the company is putting some trust and confidence in others to disrupt itself.
“If the Department of Defense and the defense industry continue business as usual, pursuing the challenges that China poses to national security, we will stop talking about it as being close to peers.
“We wish we were close to peers, so we have to speed up, and that requires an approach to these issues (ie) a disruptive approach.”
(A future episode of our Project 38 podcast will feature my full conversation with Stackley which begins with him telling the story of how L3Harris’ Agile Development Group emerged, then goes into what the company is learning through her work with Shield Capital and his perspective on discussing the growing market for technology “dual use”)