TOP 100: Inside L3Harris' plan to disrupt the defense market

"It's a bit of a greenfield, but it's one that the nation needs to quickly advance on to be able to deal with frankly the China threat," L3Harris' Sean Stackley says of AI.

"It's a bit of a greenfield, but it's one that the nation needs to quickly advance on to be able to deal with frankly the China threat," L3Harris' Sean Stackley says of AI. Courtesy of L3Harris Technologies.

Company No. 10 on our 2022 Top 100 rankings is implementing a strategy it says askews a 'business as usual' approach in favor of doing things differently.

Since opening for business almost three years ago, L3Harris Technologies' message to the defense market has essentially been that "business as usual" would not cut it in tomorrow's competitive environment or even today's.

Just look at all the ways L3Harris has talked about itself as the industry's "Nontraditional Sixth Prime" -- a tagline honing in on both its size compared to the five largest U.S. defense hardware companies and how the company wants to do things differently.

Two announcements out of L3Harris this year further illustrate that point: a partnership with venture investment firm Shield Capital to work with and invest in promising startup technology firms, and the official unveiling of an Agile Development Group to fast-track new systems.

The company is ranked at No. 10 on the 2022 Washington Technology Top 100 with over $4 billion in prime contracts.

In speaking with L3Harris executive Sean Stackley about what the big idea is behind those moves, he pointed to a second identity the company is touting -- the "Trusted Disruptor" for the U.S. military and allies in the realm of technological adoption and advancement.

Acting as that "Trusted Disruptor" means in some cases looking at the problems industry and companies alike face with a clean sheet of paper to begin with.

"You have to embrace things like digital engineering, open systems architecture," said Stackley, president of the integrated mission systems segment.

"Open systems is not just a technical framework, it's also a business relationship with the customer," added the former assistant navy secretary for research, development and acquisition.

Systems development is certainly a joint effort between companies such as L3Harris and their Defense Department customer, but businesses also must be working on the next big thing.

L3Harris spends roughly 4% of its annual revenue on independent research-and-development projects, Stackley told me. The ADG entity is at around $1 billion in sales but has dotted lines to each of the company's businesses, he added.

Both the Shield partnership and Agile Development Group have key technology areas of priority, but inevitably those will expand to other areas and overlap between those initiatives as Stackley put it.

Stackley said the L3Harris-Shield collaboration's initial four key areas are cybersecurity, space, artificial intelligence and autonomy. That partnership's emphasis is on dual-use technologies, or those that are proven in commercial markets and can be scaled for defense programs.

Even with all the talk and advancement in AI over recent years, Stackley described that tech capability as "an area where I think we're all growing: we being the defense industry."

"It's a bit of a greenfield, but it's one that the nation needs to quickly advance on to be able to deal with frankly the China threat," Stackley said.

Stackley called out the ADG team's priorities as including advanced weapons systems both kinetic and non-kinetic, digital aperture technology, autonomy and unmanned for all potential conflict domains.

Autonomy and unmanned is a clear area of overlap between L3Harris' work with Shield to find startup tech firms in that field and what ADG is working on in AI.

Stackley said the eventual goal is not just autonomous vessels, but the ability of those platforms to carry out a mission all by themselves.

The ambition he described can be found in the Navy's ongoing work to develop a concept-of-operations for unmanned surface vessels, which the branch wants to have a wide range of capabilities including sustaining itself at sea.

"But that's not why you have unmanned surface vessels, it's the mission that it needs to be able to perform while sustaining itself," Stackley said.

L3Harris believes part of the answer in making those platforms work essentially all by themselves can come from ADG's work on open systems architecture and digital engineering, both of which indicate the desire to swap augmenting technologies in-and-out of a vessel as needed.

For the amount of time L3Harris talks about being the "Trusted Disruptor," it also sure sounds like the company is putting some faith and trust in others to disrupt itself.

"If the Defense Department and the defense industry continues with business as usual, going after the challenges that China is posing to national security, we're going to stop talking about them as being a near-peer.

"We're going to wish that we're a near-peer, so we've got to pick up the pace, and that requires an approach towards these problems (that is) a disruptive approach."

(A future episode of our Project 38 podcast will feature my full conversation with Stackley that starts off with him telling the story of how L3Harris' Agile Development Group came to be, then gets into what the company is learning through its work with Shield Capital and his perspective on the market's increasing discussion of "dual use" technologies)

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