Confidence to Enter the “Valley of Death:” Transition Confidence Levels for Technology Transition

Throughout history, technology has determined the victor in war. In the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 the English soundly defeated a numerically superior French army with the newest battlefield technology—the English Longbow. In World War II, bright minds at Bletchley Park developed Bombe and Colossus, machines that could decipher German code, that turned the tide of war, and launched the computer age. The War Production Board directed efforts to the mass production of the new miracle drug Penicillin in time for the D-Day invasion, saving countless lives during and after the war. Timely technology is crucial. However, too often, tools fail to transition from R&D to the field. Worse is technology so altered by the time it reaches production that it is useless “shelf-ware,” costing warfighter lives and wasting tax payer money. Transition is one of the greatest hazards in the DoD Acquisition community. How do we move technology from the laboratory to the battlefield without becoming another casualty in the “Valley of Death”?

Technology Transition is an extremely difficult process. There is often little funding associated with the bridge between these phases. “The bridge” figuratively crosses the so-called “Valley of Death” (figure below). The needs that are fulfilled at the front of the Valley (successful R&D outputs) are often different than the needs required exiting the Valley (successful entrance criteria to a field-able system).

Figure taken from the Defense Manufacturing Management Guide for Program Managers (

While there are standard approaches as defined by the Defense Acquisition University (DAU) to better enable transition (e.g., Transition IPTs, Technical Readiness Levels, and Technical Transition Agreements), the U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) is focusing on a risk-based approach called Transition Confidence Levels. Anthony Davis and Tom Ballenger from USSOCOM Science and Technology are defining these Transition Confidence Levels and how they can ensure technologies under development are ready for transition.

The Transition Confidence Levels approach attacks yet another transition hazard: leaving the R&D phase too early. As R&D budgets wane, the pressure to quickly field new technology has put greater emphasis on the transition metric. But by leaving R&D too early (or transitioning too early) many projects become “shelf-ware” as a report or a product that will never get used.

To manage the portfolio of projects under development at SOCOM S&T, Davis and Ballenger created a Transition Confidence Level (TCL) scale to complement the already required Technology Readiness Level scale for technology maturity. Management becomes more dynamic as projects move up the TCL scale. Senior leader involvement also kicks in at the highest levels. TCL transparency ensures that everyone understands a project’s development status, and budgets and manages accordingly.

Davis and Ballenger say that the “adoption of TCL has provided a wealth of insight into the progress of the S&T portfolio toward transition with a minimum of additional data entry.” They believe the “tool has immediate potential application to numerous S&T organizations and portfolios and is easily adaptable to fit each organization’s particular needs.”

The Combatting Weapons of Mass Destruction (CWMD) mission now falls under USSOCOM. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) is the Combat Support Agency that is focused on CWMD and now reports to USSOCOM (recently changed from USSTRATCOM.)  For Global Systems Engineering, DTRA is one of our key clients and this TCL concept will become very important over the coming months and years.

With Technology Confidence Levels, SOCOM S&T is learning, improving, and adjusting to keep a dream alive – better acquisition management. Read Bridging the “Valley of Death” here.

Written by Chris Russell and Elizabeth Halford

Tags: acquisitiontechnology transitionValley of Death

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