The $200 A Foot Cable: Hunting and Farming in Federal BD

  |  April 9, 2018

Tim Birdsall

The good hunter goes out loaded and ready for whatever pops up. – Proper dress, weapon, and ammunition. Good location and marksmanship help, but in an open environment, success is framed by multiple unknowns.

The farmer, however, prepares for everything in advance. — plowing, the seed, and the fertilizer. The farmer can control nearly everything except the weather.

Several years ago, I was working for a company that was successful as a task order hunter; but task orders began to look like an endangered species. The company’s capabilities focused on aircraft sustainment and modernization. Seeing that we were getting hungry waiting on more game, my supervisor asked me to reach out do something to put food on the table.

I began by getting to know the lay of the land. My personal background is in ground communications, having served 22-years in this field in the Air Force. So I got to know the people and the systems they were responsible for at the ground communications depot at Warner Robins AFB. Since I had supported several of these systems, we had an immediate connection. After a few meetings with the depot team, they gave me a seed.

In the 1950’s and 60’s the foundation of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was the Minuteman ICBM. One of the systems for the launch officers to communicate with command was the Survivable Low Frequency Communications System (SLFCS). The transmission cable for this system is buried under ground, and through the years, the cable had to be patched to maintain connectivity. The Air Force had used up their supply of cable, and the original manufacture was no longer an option. This was my seed – find a solution to manufacture this cable.

The original cost of the cable to the Air Force was over $200/foot, and they bought miles of it. The cable had extreme specifications, because it had to survive a nuclear attack. We had the original design plans, and I first had to update them to current IEEE standards. One of the original tests for the cable was to wrap a section around a 4’ oak tree trunk and pull both ends by tractor, while the interior insulator could not slide more than ¼”. This was just one of hundreds of standards that had to be updated or re-created. The next issue was to find a cable manufacture who could build this. I went through over 40 companies across the U.S. before I found someone hungry enough to accept such a rigorous assignment.

The customer wanted to award us a sole source, but that meant delaying the release for additional reviews. Because we had grown this opportunity from a seed (farmer), we told them to go competitive.

When the task order was released, the five other primes (hunters) on the IDIQ had no idea where to begin on developing a response in only 10-days. Because of months of work in the field, our harvest went as planned, we were the only bidder. I’m not opposed to hunting for task orders, but no one should try to survive solely on hunting; you need to also be an active farmer.