Airmen assigned to the 18th Maintenance Group use virtual reality headsets to review maintenance tasks March 28, 2019, at Kadena Air Base, Japan.

Airmen assigned to the 18th Maintenance Group use virtual reality headsets to review maintenance tasks March 28, 2019, at Kadena Air Base, Japan. U.S. Air Force

What We Don’t Know About Military Innovation

It’s time to take stock of the Pentagon’s various rapid-acquisition efforts.

The Pentagon’s senior leadership is determined to drag the often-lumbering Department of Defense into a new era of innovation. This is not a new idea. The effort to institutionalize peacetime defense innovation reaches back at least as far as Franklin Roosevelt’s charge to Vannevar Bush to recommend how the World War II research and development enterprise could work post-war. Bush’s report resulted in the creation of a research ecosystem that includes today’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, where, as it happens, both authors have worked.

But the leadership push for defense innovation has clearly intensified. Back in 2014, then Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel signed the Defense Innovation Initiative. His successor, Ash Carter, created the Defense Innovation Unit and chartered a new outside board of technology advisors. His successor, Jim Mattis, called for a national security innovation base. And his successor, Mark Esper, has said “we must out-compete, out-innovate, and out-hustle everyone else.” 

These calls to action have shown results. With the help of Congress, DOD has gained several new ways to spur speed in innovation: rapid middle-tier prototyping and acquisition pathways; rapid capability offices in the Army, Air Force, and Space Force; expanded other transaction authority; rapid experiments; and pitch days where small businesses propose ideas and DOD cuts a check on the spot. These are needed tools that provide buyers flexibility and alternative approaches, while freeing innovators from one-size-fits-all application of DoD’s sometimes-byzantine processes.

Speed. Innovation. Fail fast. In defense acquisition, it makes sense to have a unifying common theme to work towards, provided we don’t overapply the language, become overly enamored with our own bumper sticker slogans, and lose track of the “why.” In the broadest terms, the objectives of DOD’s acquisition system are straightforward: field militarily superior capabilities at scale while minimizing total lifecycle costs, including development, procurement, and sustainment costs. New acquisition tools should help. 

Given the sheer number of tools, picking the right one for the task becomes even more complicated and important. Moreover, the toolbox itself cannot be taken for granted. The history of new acquisition tools is one of a pendulum swinging back and forth. If the Department is perceived to be exploiting narrow authorities beyond their intended purpose, Congress could curtail those authorities. And when programs designed to go fast and leap ahead end up with ballooning costs and still taking longer than promised, both Congress and the executive branch tend to react with restrictions on flexibility, increased oversight, and a new round of reconfiguring DOD’s organization chart. 

There was the lead system integrator model that when applied to the Army’s future combat systems became associated with billions of dollars in cost overruns and a resultant blanket ban by Congress. Or the Air Force’s emphasis in the 1990s and early 2000s on total system performance responsibility that aimed to harness the entrepreneurial spirit of industry with a light government touch requiring smaller program offices and reduced acquisition workforces. 

A record of cost growth and cancelled programs spurred Congress to pass the Weapons Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009, and spurred the Department to make numerous internal reforms favoring getting the details right rather than going fast. In its 2008 report, GAO found that nearly half of programs had 25 percent or more growth in costs and the for all programs the average schedule delay was 21 months, almost two years. The Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act emphasized careful upfront planning, risk reduction, and independent assessments of cost, technology maturity, and manufacturing readiness before a program could be started. The various Better Buying Power initiatives adopted between 2009 and 2016 encouraged government staff to dig into what contractors were doing. However, other efforts pursued during this period, like the swing to lowest price-technically acceptable contracting, had more mixed results.

And these swings of the pendulum were reactions to earlier swings: TSPR was a response to the Packard Commission reforms that instilled stronger central oversight, which were themselves reactions to the Carlucci reforms that sought to delegate more decisions, which were themselves reacting to the creation of the milestone-based system to standardize acquisition. For more than 50 years, DOD has alternated which acquisition approach is preferred.

Today, we are well into an era that emphasizes speed over getting it right. There are reasons to embrace such an era: the pace of technological change, the expansion of mainstream defense domains into space and cyber, and the energy of the commercial sector are all factors commonly cited. America’s great power rivals, particularly China, are finally fielding advanced capabilities that challenge those of the U.S. military. 

As in previous eras, emphasizing speed can sometimes cause otherwise diligent people to misapply the tools available and cut corners rather than just take calculated risks. The House Appropriations Committee has already noted that it “increasingly finds that the Department-wide mantra of increasing speed and accepting greater risk in acquisition programs has not been matched by the necessary discipline when it comes to programming, budgeting, and transparency.” That language is directed specifically at two Air Force hypersonic weapons programs, both of which were started as rapid prototyping programs. One has already been cancelled, while the other has seen 60 percent budget growth in one year. While leap-ahead innovation entails accepting risk and it is better to fail fast than to fail slowly, when high-profile “innovative” programs blow through cost and schedule goals it endangers the new tools and flexibility provided DOD. That sense of cutting corners grows when Congress or overseers in the Office of the Secretary of Defense believe that underperformance was concealed.

The answer, of course, is not to just swing wildly on the pendulum. The answer is not to blindly apply a straitjacket to acquisition and throw away the flexibility that allows speed when appropriate. Instead, the correct answer is to apply the right tool for the circumstances. 

Selecting the right tool from the toolkit requires discipline, knowledge, and experience. One of our successors, current Assistant Air Force Secretary Will Roper, emphasized striking the right balance in a memo urging the appropriate use of new tools: “Religious devotion to schedule and budget constraints is a must; without it, one rarely make [sic] tough calls early enough to make it to the fast track.”  

To best use DOD’s new toolkit, we should not skimp on the upfront decision support needed to commit to a multi-billion-dollar project of high consequence and to decide on the right way to pursue it. For new government-funded development efforts, we must conduct rigorous cost estimates and then have the self-discipline to budget to them. Consideration of “DOTMLPF-P” — doctrine, organization, training, material, leadership and education, personnel, facilities, and policy — must be integrated into our thinking from the start, so that we neither default to a materiel solution when that is not the best approach nor field a capability that we cannot train the force to operate. 

There is real value to rapid technology demonstrations and prototyping, but doing a rapid prototype in the absence of a plan for what comes next – design maturity, production, sustainment, and DOTMLPF-P considerations—is likely to build a bridge to nowhere. We must understand how the tools provided DoD will enable the pursuit of creative, effective, and efficient contracting strategies and not wish away the always difficult task of putting something binding on paper.

Five years into this new era of focus on acquisition speed, it is important to take stock of how we are doing. From a process perspective, there is no question that the use of non-traditional authorities has dramatically shifted; Other Transaction Authority (OTA) use for prototypes more than doubled from 2016 to 2018. The military services have dramatically increased the use of middle-tier (“Section 804”) acquisition pathways, in part to avoid external second-guessing before programs are begun. 

But what are the results, and where to now? It is time for clear-eyed assessment of what is working, with an eye toward continuous improvement and rebuilding overseers’ confidence in the Department. Key questions we need to be asking for continuous improvement include: 

(1) What has been the track record of the rapid authorities being used by the DoD? Put another way: what has worked and what has not? We can move faster and get better results by taking calculated risks but assuming all programs need to be acquired “rapidly” ignores lessons learned the hard way and risks losing those authorities. 

(2) What capabilities have been fielded at scale using the rapid pathways (or are at least on track to field at scale), and what are the lessons learned? If we end up cancelling too large a share of programs or leaving many capability areas with only demonstrations of potential solutions, we are not actually fielding faster. Sometimes, slow is smooth and smooth is fast. 

(3) Armed with new tools, how has the acquisition system, programming, and requirements all adjusted and advanced the relevant parts of the National Defense Strategy, including development of innovative warfighting concepts to confound our adversaries? If the new tools allow us to partner with a start-up that does not have a traditional working relationship with DOD, we have the chance to get different kinds of capabilities. But if we are acquiring an incremental improvement in a capability the United States has long dominated, we may not be getting the operational advantage we want.

(4) What is the overall state of the military technological competition between the United States and its great power rivals, particularly China, and where has the defense acquisition system provided advantage in that competition? We aren’t the only ones with a bureaucracy and competing interests. We can’t blindly assume that our adversaries always go fast and get it right while we go slow and get it wrong. We need to use the right tools to go fast when we need to and get it right when we need to. 

Now is the time to accurately and honestly track our progress, using the right capabilities and tools for each problem we hope to solve, acknowledge our stumbles, course correct and move on. We do not need to swing wildly from one extreme to another. By keeping our eyes open and setting clear guardrails, we can continue to innovate and maintain the most powerful military the world has ever seen

Jamie Morin is Executive Director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy at The Aerospace Corporation, a nonprofit which runs a federally funded research and development center for the U.S. space enterprise. He previously served as Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation for the Department of Defense and as Assistant Air Force Secretary for financial management.

Bill LaPlante is President and CEO of Draper Laboratory, an independent nonprofit research lab. He previously served as Assistant Air Force Secretary for acquisition, and most recently was the SVP for National Security at the Mitre Corporation.