Defense Technology Development:

Technology Transition Programs Support Military Users, but Opportunities Exist to Improve Measurement of Outcomes

GAO-13-286: Published: Mar 7, 2013. Publicly Released: Mar 7, 2013.

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What GAO Found

GAO identified 20 technology transition programs--managed by the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) and the military departments--that provide structured mechanisms and funding to facilitate technology transition. All of the programs GAO reviewed are consistent in providing opportunities to transition technologies from the science and technology (S&T) environment to a user, such as a weapon system acquisition program or the warfighter in the field. To help speed the delivery of technologies to users, most transition programs target fairly mature technologies, which are suitable for final stages of development and demonstration. Collectively, the programs GAO reviewed obligated about $7.9 billion in Department of Defense (DOD) research, development, test, and evaluation funding for fiscal years 2010 through 2012 to support technology transition.

Most programs that GAO assessed track whether their projects were completed and successfully transitioned to intended users. On average, programs reported a historical transition rate of over 70 percent for projects. The vast majority of these projects resulted in technologies transitioning to acquisition programs or directly to the warfighter. However, about one-quarter of the projects transitioned to other organizations, such as test and evaluation centers, for further development. Prior GAO work found that tracking technology transitions and the impact of those transitions, such as cost savings or deployment of the technology in a product, provides key feedback that can inform the management of programs. For the most part, transition programs that GAO reviewed do not track projects beyond transition, which limits their ability to know and report final outcomes for transitioned technologies and the associated benefits realized from those technologies.

As GAO has reported in the past, effective selection and management processes as well as tools are needed to ensure that new technologies can be successfully transitioned to military users. GAO found that OSD's and the Military Departments' technology transition programs make use of these practices to varying degrees. Most programs have formal review processes to determine whether candidate projects have sufficiently mature technologies, are in demand by users, and have schedules and costs that fit within the programs' criteria. Once selected, projects require effective management to ensure risks are minimized and transition commitments are confirmed. Many program officials indicated that regular stakeholder communication during project execution is important to ensure projects stay on track and transition commitments are sustained. Moreover, many program officials identified the use of formal management tools, such as technology transition agreements, as key mechanisms to help hold stakeholders accountable and facilitate technology transition.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD and Congress recognize that technology innovation sometimes moves too slowly from the lab to the field. Programs have been created in DOD to help facilitate the transition of new technologies. The conference report accompanying the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act directed GAO to undertake a body of work that will provide a holistic assessment of DOD's S&T enterprise. This report reflects the results from GAO's first review, which focuses on technology transition. Generally, when technologies have been sufficiently matured in the S&T environment, the technologies are available to transition to a military user. GAO's specific objectives were to (1) determine what DOD programs are dedicated to facilitating technology transition, (2) assess the outcomes of these transition programs, and (3) identify practices among the programs that may facilitate technology transition. GAO conducted interviews with and collected information from each technology transition program to identify their selection, management, and assessment practices, as well as project outcomes.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that DOD require programs to track and measure project outcomes to document transition results and benefits from transition, as well as assess programs to identify opportunities for more widespread use of existing transition management tools. DOD generally concurred with these recommendations and stated that it will initiate actions to address potential opportunities for improvement identified in the report.

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Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To improve visibility and management of the department's efforts to transition technologies to support the needs of the warfighter, the Secretary of Defense should require that all technology transition programs track and measure project outcomes, to include not only whether technologies transitioned to an intended user but also the longer-term impact of whether the technologies benefitted acquisition programs or military users in the field.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense agrees that all transition programs should track and measure project outcomes, including how the technology or capability is being employed by the intended user. The Department is concerned, however, that the GAO recommendation to track and measure outcomes for hundreds of technology projects would be a labor-intensive and very time-consuming process. DOD indicated that these projects are tracked to some degree within the period of performance for each research and development project, e.g., six months to three years. Monitoring the long-term impact as to where, when, and how individual projects are used in acquisition programs and with military users requires a sustained presence - a minimum of two to five years beyond the end of the research investment to monitor performance. DOD indicated this requires additional investment in manpower along with a new tracking process and/or robust database. DOD estimates that each Service or Agency would require a full man-year level of effort to institutionalize a process for long-term tracking and more man-years of effort to track programs and projects at the unit level. Another impediment to tracking would be the lack of an agreed upon definition of technology transition. Other reasons for the difficulty of long-term tracking are: (1) the lack of a contract vehicle to monitor contractor performance associated with technology transition and the view of the acquisition community that doing so would be an excess or undue cost; (2) program manager and contracting officer turnover, or reassignment, resulting in loss of continuity of access to the information needed to measure longer-term success; and (3) a commitment of manpower, either in-house government or contractor support. The Department indicated it will continue to anecdotally measure the results of technology investments for three, five, or even ten years after investment and highlight the long-term benefits, as needed, to validate the investment levels associated with the research and development programs. In addition it will continue to assess whether a more sustained effort can be developed and implemented.

    Recommendation: To improve visibility and management of the department's efforts to transition technologies to support the needs of the warfighter, the Secretary of Defense should assess transition programs to identify opportunities for more widespread use of existing transition management tools, such as technology transition agreements and technology commitment level evaluation mechanisms.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense agrees that all transition programs should identify opportunities to use existing transition management tools. The Navy has implemented the use of transition tools as a best practice and the Army expressed their support of using technology transition agreements and technology commitment level evaluations to assess technology development and maturation programs. The Department of Defense has indicated it will publish and disseminate guidelines to improve the understanding as to when, how, and under what circumstances transition management tools can be employed.

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