Ross Wilkers

COMPANY OUTLOOK

Pacstar's evolution continues on the tactical edge

Now a communications hardware and solutions provider, PacStar originally started in 2000 as a value-added reseller of those same offerings to the U.S. military. It also had relationships with larger vendors.

If PacStar stayed that way, then the market would see them as similar to the likes of Carahsoft, DLT Solutions and ImmixGroup that resell commercial IT software and other products for public sector entities.

“That experience informed us that there were a lot of needs out there, particularly in the tactical environment, for small-form factor easy-to-operate equipment,” PacStar CEO Peggy Miller told WT.

Portland, Oregon-based PacStar has made that equipment themselves for the past 15 years and has strung together a series of defense contract wins in that timeframe, with each gradually larger in size, to further move up the food chain.

The largest one came to PacStar last year in the form of a potential $300 million contract to supply wireless command post networking equipment to the Army for between five and seven years.

During our conversation, I asked Miller what the most significant shift has been over PacStar’s existence when it comes to how the Defense Department looks at acquiring and standing up communications networks. She indicated that part of it comes down to word association.

“The term network modernization… they already had the vision of it, they just didn’t put a name to it and hadn’t changed their acquisition policy,” Miller told me. “In the last few years, the military has changed their approach. They realize the old tractor trailer trucks and having a lot of (service representatives) in the field is not going to work.

“With this new expeditionary approach to being out in the battlefield, they see that they have to have things that are smaller, more portable,” she added. “The military’s vision has changed and their acquisition strategy to implement that has also changed.”

So too has much of the software and other digital technologies to augment those platforms changed, including efforts to infuse more artificial intelligence into what is available on the battlefield.

PacStar Chief Technology Officer Charlie Kawasaki acknowledged that it is still in the “very early stages for deployment” of AI in tactical settings, but it is not for a lack of effort.

As he pointed out, the Defense Department’s standup of its Joint Artificial Intelligence Center in 2018 and a wide range of research work being done at DOD labs is part of that push to get AI into those tactical settings sooner rather than later.

Kawasaki said that means “everything from real-time warfighting decision support and assistance, things like identifying threats and objects in video feeds, analyzing cyber and electronic warfare attacks, managing of autonomous vehicles and making sense of information that will be increasing in orders of magnitude.”

“The only real way to make sense out of that is to automate it,” Kawasaki added, though he cautioned again that it is “very early” days on that front.

Executives at government contractors increasingly speak of extracting value from data as what is driving technology innovation in today’s market. Consider that DOD and so many other agencies have to keep all of their data and often have specific regulations that mandate how that data is managed.

For most technology vendors like PacStar however, they do not see data once a turnkey solution is delivered to the customer. Kawasaki stressed that is not a unique challenge to the company and one the government is making an effort to solve.

More visibility into the data would seemingly help vendors who also offer a managed service model to agencies along with the products themselves.

“Collaborating around building trained AI models that have to have in some cases huge amounts of data, that’s still a whole process that the DOD is trying to figure out,” Kawasaki said.

About the Author

Ross Wilkers is a senior staff writer for Washington Technology. He can be reached at rwilkers@washingtontechnology.com. Follow him on Twitter: @rosswilkers. Also find and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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