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America’s military needs an innovation overhaul

If confirmed as Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin would inherit a Pentagon that has lost its technological edge. But it isn’t too late to fight back, two national security experts write.

America’s military needs an innovation overhaul
President-elect Joe Biden (right) and his nominee for defense secretary, retired General Lloyd Austin (left). [Photo: Allison Shelley/Getty Images (Austin); Alex Wong/Getty Images (Biden); Mariordo Camila Ferreira & Mario Duran/Wikipedia Commons; rawpixel]
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Earlier this year U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Charles Brown issued a dire warning for the service to “accelerate change” or “risk losing a high-end fight.” The same could be said to the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, and Space Force: America’s military is at risk of losing its technological edge and its position as the dominant fighting force around the world. Once unmatched in its ability to research, develop, and field world-class weaponry, the United States military has over the past decade found itself in a race with competitor states for mastery of new technologies.

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Defense innovation is vital to the security of the United States and its allies, but the technological prowess of the U.S. military also provides enormous benefits to society and the economy more broadly. The Pentagon built the network that would become the internet and helped fund the semiconductor industry that gave us Silicon Valley. It developed the underlying technology of Siri and continues to push the boundaries in medicine. If the U.S. military fails to accelerate change, the country could miss out on any number of world-changing breakthroughs.

President-elect Joe Biden is expected to nominate Lloyd Austin, a retired Army four-star general, to head the Department of Defense. But the responsibility for getting the armed forces back in the innovation race extends well beyond the secretary of defense and the Pentagon. Policymakers, businesses, and citizens must commit to fundamentally altering the ecosystem of national defense: This starts with a stronger, more integrated commitment to innovation and a more open defense industry. For these reforms to have real bite, though, the U.S. military must not only embrace them but also work to cultivate a culture of constant evolution. Fortunately, its leaders need not reinvent the culture of the armed services: they can look to history, such as the Navy’s adoption of aircraft carriers before World War II, to the adaptability of men and women in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to the lessons of industry to build a stronger, more nimble military.

Reimagining how we “do” defense

The traditional model of government-led innovation is increasingly outdated. New technologies blur the line between military and civilian uses, and the capabilities of the future will more likely come out of commercial industry than a national laboratory, a reality that the defense ecosystem—the Department of Defense, research labs, the defense industry, and Congress—has been slow to embrace. Fundamental reforms are imperative.

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First, Congress and the Pentagon should continue to make it easier to acquire off-the-shelf technologies, speed up acquisitions, and work with industry. They should inject much-needed flexibility into the annual programming and budgeting cycle, update the testing and evaluation process, and revise the current manner by which the Pentagon dictates requirements for new weapons systems. The Pentagon should also collaborate more closely with Congress and involve those on the frontlines in the process of identifying and acquiring necessary capabilities.

[Photo: 12019/Pixabay]
Second, Congress and the Pentagon should further restructure the way the Defense Department recruits, trains, and develops its people, with a focus on building a tech-savvy workforce. New opportunities for outside experts to move laterally into the department could expand the talent pool. Increasing chances for continued technical education and establishing new career pathways for civilian would likewise improve retention and workforce development. The Pentagon ought to invest in the information technology, cloud computing resources, and data access that are table stakes for high-tech employees.

Third, the U.S. needs a national innovation policy. Emergent technologies are more likely to be funded or developed by the host of agencies, national labs, and government-affiliated research centers that make up the national security innovation base, than by a Department of Defense lab. Washington must increase R&D funding (currently a fraction of what it was 50 years ago as a percentage of GDP) across all those stakeholders; it should likewise establish processes to coordinate disparate research activities, as the National Quantum Initiative does.

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But most of all, the military-industrial complex must expand beyond its traditional suppliers. Established defense contractors are vital elements of the defense ecosystem, but in the words of a Council on Foreign Relations task force, “the Defense Department cannot remain ahead of potential adversaries without access to an expanded pool of technologies developed in the private sector.” The defense industry has consolidated around a few major contractors, but the four largest only spend roughly a quarter of what Google does on R&D. The established industry players will remain critical suppliers, but they will not drive all necessary innovation. For that, the Pentagon must work more closely with commercial technology firms.

There are noteworthy differences in the values of Washington and Silicon Valley, as evidenced by Google employees’ headline-grabbing protest to Project Maven, but we strongly believe the bureaucracy and unpredictability of defense contracting is the root cause of the divide. Firms that contract with the Pentagon must navigate labyrinthine bureaucratic processes and rely on unpredictable or insufficient funding streams. The big, established contractors can do so, but that complexity makes it difficult for firms outside the traditional defense ecosystem to do business with the Pentagon. The rigidity of Washington is at odds with the innovative, risk-taking ethos of Silicon Valley. That likely will never change, but the defense ecosystem can and should narrow the gap by reducing regulatory complexity and ensuring stable funding.

To do so, the Pentagon, with Congressional support, ought to build a transparent innovation pipeline that identifies commercial technology firms and accelerates promising capabilities from prototypes to the field. To begin, the Pentagon should hold more information exchanges, industry fairs, and other touchpoints. It can then provide early-stage funding to firms developing promising capabilities, as the Air Force is experimenting with, while also carefully vetting and assessing their viability and long-term potential. The final stage of the pipeline should establish financial pathways to provide contracts to the vetted firms and ensure they receive the steady revenue that new entrants need.

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These reforms would increase access to new technologies, but genuine innovation will not take hold unless the armed services evolve how they organize, arm, and operate their forces.

Military Culture

The cultures of the military services must change. Though their influence has declined from when one of us last put on the uniform, the traditional uniformed services still shape the fighting force more than any other entity. They train, educate, and develop the military men and women and compete for limited resources. That competition, driven by what RAND’s Carl Builder called the “distinct and enduring personalities” of the services, fuels innovation.

But the services also retain cultural attributes that can hinder innovation. And that is where change must occur. A willingness to accept risk and “fail fast” is foundational to innovation, but the uniformed services tend to incentivize risk-aversion. Personnel systems, for example, discourage ambitious officers from taking risks in their career choices. The services and their members gain relevance and position through mastery of certain longstanding domains of warfighting and often resist new ideas or capabilities that might reduce the centrality of those domains. They likewise tend to focus on established activities, not experimenting with new ideas, and the department encourages consensus and a “zero defect mentality.”

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These dynamics stem in part from the hold that military professionalism has on the officer corps. Officers share a “distinct sphere of proficiency” in what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington described as the “management of violence.” In each service, time spent leading men and women in the core warfighting competencies impresses promotions boards more than time spent in the kinds of non-warfighting positions central to innovation.

Similarly, though military innovation depends on an officer corps educated and encouraged to innovate, civilian graduate school educations and outside fellowships rarely help, and sometimes hurt, officers’ career prospects. At its worst, that antipathy devolves into anti-intellectualism. The military is full of curious, educated officers who could apply the lessons of history to concrete problems today, but the services too often dissuade that way of thinking.

The exceptions prove the rule. Special operations forces tend to prize adaptability, new ideas, and experimentation, but, as they profess, “cannot be mass produced”–nor, in all likelihood, can their model. Likewise, new innovation hubs, such as the Air Force’s innovation accelerator, AFWERX, or the Army’s Futures Command, may capture an entrepreneurial spirit but amount to an “innovation archipelago” outside the mainstream.

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The cultural norms described here adhere to a certain logic: For the men and women preparing for combat, taking “risks” can be uniquely perilous, and those who command others in combat must be schooled and experienced in the warfighting competencies. Taken to an extreme, however, these values and habits stand in the way of the continual adoption of new technologies, concepts, and doctrine that the strategic environment demands. And they are reinforced by the unrelenting cycle of training, equipping, and deployment. Officers make their careers commanding operational units but spend their time focused almost entirely on being ready to go when their number is called. They do not have the time and “white space” to innovate deeply and systematically.

Former secretaries of defense Ash Carter, James Mattis, and Mark Esper. [Photos: DoD/Wikipedia Commons (Carter) (Mattis) (Esper)]

Creating an innovation culture

Given these norms, it will take more than reforms to the political and regulatory climate for military innovation to flourish. It will require cultural change, and that in turn comes from recruiting and promoting men and women who embrace a new ethos.

This will not occur without the leadership of the secretary of defense. Former secretaries Ash Carter, James Mattis, and Mark Esper have all rightly identified the need for cultural adaptation. Future Pentagon leaders must go further: set clear strategic goals and priorities for how the military will be used, demand continual evolution, and challenge the entire defense enterprise, particularly the services, to align their cultures to that mantra. They must empower the service chiefs to elevate the virtues of experimentation, risk-taking, and continual learning in their ranks, and especially in the officer corps. Most of all, they should heed the words of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford: “be smart enough to know what has to change” but recognize “those aspects of [the military] profession which will allow us to endure.” It is on this battlefield that defense innovation will succeed or fail.

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At the extreme, the armed forces could establish units dedicated to innovation and experimentation, outside the operational force. Officers would ideally rotate between these and traditional commands and be rewarded for doing so in promotions. The services could also consider what Harvard professor Stephen Rosen called, “a new promotion pathway for junior officers practicing a new way of war.” One ambitious model would create an entirely new career field built around innovation, STEM, and rapid capabilities development, another around service-specific “innovation officer paths.”

Services could also incentivize the best and brightest to do the dirty work of innovation, such as defining new operational challenges and validating requirements or working in rapid innovation offices, through the promotions process. They could adopt “up and stay” career models that allow some personnel with valuable skills to remain in the military without being promoted. If done well, these steps would signal that those who innovate outside the traditional warfighting roles of each service have a respected place in America’s military.

To combat the roots of anti-intellectualism, the services should reward officers who offer new concepts, challenge existing ways of operating, and broaden the intellectual context within which the armed services develop new ideas. The Marine Corps expressed the importance of such critical thinking in its new learning doctrine. Other services should as well. They could also encourage officers to take private sector fellowships and other like opportunities or even incentivize material time in industry in the promotions process. Allowing a small number of people to move laterally from the civilian world into mid-career roles, as experimented with before, may also be worth considering. More broadly, the services should prioritize diversity in recruitment and development.

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Finally, regular competitions and conferences among service members could help embed ideation, risk-taking, and innovation as critical cultural norms. Teams could compete to solve a known operational challenge, similar to existing Olympiads. This would be akin to the Army’s legendary “best ranger” competition but reward and highlight a different variation of creativity, resilience, and mental toughness.

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The reforms considered here represent two prongs of a defense innovation strategy. The first would begin building a more permeable and innovative defense ecosystem. The latter would begin fostering cultures of greater ideation, risk-taking, and entrepreneurship across the military services. If done together, they could set the conditions for the continual technological and doctrinal breakthroughs that military superiority requires. However, that will not happen without the impetus of the Pentagon’s leaders, the buy-in of Congress, and a concerted effort to match defense budgets to the nation’s strategy. It will also require leaders in the private sector to meet Washington halfway and help craft a more innovative and secure future.

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Meaningful change won’t be easy. Past reform efforts have too often occurred at the margins and been cut short by competing demands for time, people, and resources. Faced with looming defense budget austerity, rapidly advancing technologies, and imminent threats, it will be all too tempting for decisionmakers to retreat to known ways of operating or accepted visons of future competition. That would be a grave mistake.

David H. McCormick is the CEO of Bridgewater Associates, a global macro investment firm. Previously, he served in senior positions in the Treasury Department, the White House, and the Commerce Department. He is a graduate of West Point and a veteran of the First Gulf War.

James M. Cunningham is a research associate at Bridgewater Associates. He previously worked as a national security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution.