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All This ‘Innovation’ Won’t Save the Pentagon

The Defense Department, a hierarchy fixated on technology, is unequipped to confront a world of disruptive challenges.

I recently had the privilege of attending a Silicon Valley conference attended by leaders across the national security “innovation ecosystem.” The term reflects today’s veritable freshet of interest in defense innovation, from self-styled “virtuous insurgents” and defense “hackers” to individual agency innovation offices and entirely new outfits with on-the-nose names such as the Defense Innovation Unit and the Defense Innovation Board. All this may suggest that the national security apparatus is at last confronting the need for long-overdue changes to how we do business. 

For two days, I listened to senior people from the military services, large defense agencies, and major components of the intelligence community as they described various “mission acceleration” efforts—that is, finding shortcuts that allow us to do what we’ve been doing a bit faster, a bit cheaper, a bit better.

This is a problem. 

Innovation—from the Latin innovare—literally means to “make new.” But defense and other national security leaders often confuse it with automation or modernization. Automating an existing process doesn’t change the process itself. Nor does it change the game to incrementally improve the range, speed, or—forgive me—the “lethality” of existing weapons. Such efforts are like a homeowner fixing a broken window, painting a dilapidated wall, or adding a bathroom without considering the decaying foundations of the house itself.

Don’t get me wrong: incremental improvements are the cost of doing business in an accelerating competitive space. But even if they permit us to steal a march on the Red Queen, they won’t solve defense’s biggest problems, which stem from an outdated 20th-century organizational structure that is remarkably unsuited to contemporary challenges.

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Innovation leaders often cite Eastman-Kodak as an example of an enterprise that was too dim-witted to see the writing on the wall and so fell from its lofty perch. But Kodak’s executives weren’t ignorant. They knew technology was changing and in fact invested billions of dollars in digitization. Kodak’s fatal problem was an inflexible organization that couldn’t adapt quickly enough to forces outside of its control.

Similarly, the Defense Department was never intended to innovate—in fact quite the opposite. It is a hierarchy. Safe and reassuring, fulfilling deeply rooted human needs for order, hierarchies are great at promoting standardization by reducing the transaction costs of information. But since they exist to impose conformity, they work precisely to prevent innovation. 

Despite repeated paeans to disruption, actual innovation in the national security sector is typically either smothered by bureaucratic antibodies or so detached from actual governance processes that it produces little aside from good press. Although many of the participants in the “innovation ecosystem” are smart, creative thinkers, their organizations are generally disconnected islands with little accountability or rigor, almost wholly removed from acquisition, planning, and budget execution.

Witness the department’s existing aquisition process, which is roughly the opposite of how modern products are developed. It enumerates numerous, often overlapping or contradictory “requirements” before production is even thought about. The process takes years, as shown by albatrosses like the Air Force’s F-35 and the Army’s Distributed Common Ground System. Systems acquired in this manner are artifacts from a bygone era before they’re ever even delivered, and the glacial DoD process means warfighters are stuck with them for decades to come.

Even DoD’s latest attempt to promote innovation added a layer of hierarchy, splitting the office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics into silos focused on Research & Engineering on the one hand, and Acquisition & Sustainment on the other. One can almost hear the wheels spinning. 

Such outdated organizational structures severely limit the practical application of new technologies. Strategy can be stymied when either policies or the tactics used to achieve those policies are unable or unwilling to adapt pragmatically. We also sometimes innovate our way into new problems by failing to think through the logistical and doctrinal implications of a given innovation.

If new technologies are to change the conduct of warfare, there must be suitable organization and doctrine to employ them in the furtherance of policy goals. Today, all security communities are faced with not only the challenge of developing new capabilities, but of making strategic, doctrinal, logistical, and fiscal sense of the new tactics that appear to be viable. 

Defense innovation requires more than acquisition reform—it requires a transformation of operating and business models and a new structure to empower them. Like everything else today, these are complex, interconnected systems that must be attacked from more than one direction. Acquisition structure is inextricably tied to parallel policy, budgetary, human resource, and security structures, all of which are governed by confusingly overlapping congressional oversight committees. Existing bottlenecks and barriers, particularly those involving data ownership and talent management, must be broken down or removed altogether to spur needed reform. 

To their credit, the authors of the National Defense Strategy recognized that “success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting.” The NDS charges agency leaders with “organizing for innovation,” handing them an explicit mandate for change.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. The sort of structural reforms advocated here are a near-insurmountable challenge in a rigidly hierarchical institution with hundreds of empowered stakeholders and two million employees. So the department instead remains focused on developing new tools rather than thinking of ways to integrate them and adapt its way of fighting, all while urging its people to be more creative, more risk-taking, more agile—more innovative. 

But innovation can’t be commanded. It can only be encouraged and enabled

Therefore, we face a choice. If we choose to do nothing—to maintain the status quo by paying lip service to innovation while maintaining the outdated models of the past century and making marginal improvements every few years—some disruptive force will eventually provoke systemic collapse. Instead, we should choose to renew—to innovate—the system itself before it is too late and either invent or solicit solutions and adaptations to the political, strategic, and military challenges and opportunities that disruptive changes are creating. 

We’ve done this before. The U.S. Army reinvented itself during the Civil War. The Great Depression provoked a decade of radical experimentation across the federal government, producing not just the modern social safety net but ground-breaking national-security entities such as the Office of Strategic Services

Ultimately, my seminar in Silicon Valley reminded me of what Clemenceau said of war and generals: innovation is far too important to be left to the acquisition officers. If we want real innovation at the Pentagon, we must be willing to disrupt its very foundations.