Defense Science Board

Pentagon Advisory Boards Need to Offer 10X Ideas, Not 10% Ones

DoD's 40-plus boards must be restructured to help the department think far bigger.

Thursday’s news that the Biden administration will delay the seating of several Trump appointees to defense advisory boards is a welcome signal that incoming leaders recognize these groups are essential, not just patronage jobs. But the review needs to go much further than that.

The Defense Department is at a crossroads. Incremental improvements are no longer good enough to keep up with China; the Pentagon needs substantive and sustained changes to its size, structure, policies, processes, practices, technologies, and culture. The last administration asked most of the Pentagon’s 40-plus boards for advice on small improvements — with a few notable exceptions, such as the Innovation Board’s Software Study and the work of the National Security Commission for AI — the latter an independent effort chartered by Congress. 

This is no longer sufficient. The DoD needs to ask for big ideas, and it needs to reshape its boards to provide them.

These advisory boards are comprised of individuals outside of their parent organization who can provide independent perspectives and advice. A board has no official role in managing; they can’t hire, fire, or order people to do things. All they can do is offer advice. But with the right membership and senior support, they can have tremendous impact.

Most of the boards are in the services and agencies. For example, the Army and the Air Force each have their own Science Board. The military academies each have a Board of Visitors. The Office of the Secretary of Defense has seven advisory boards: Policy, Innovation, Science, Business, Military Personnel TestingWomen in the Services, and Sexual Assault. (Steve had the pleasure of serving on one – albeit for a short time.)

In times where the status quo is sufficient — when your company or country is the leader — you ask your advisory boards for ideas to improve your existing systems. You appoint advisors who have detailed knowledge of existing systems and have long term institutional knowledge and connections. And you generally discourage ideas that might disrupt the status quo.

However, these are not normal times. Rapid innovation in new technologies – cyber, AI, autonomy, access to space, drones, biotech, etc.— are no longer being led by military/government labs, but instead come from commercial vendors – many of them Chinese. The result is that unlike the last 75 years, the DoD can no longer predict or control future technologies and threats.

So it’s time for DoD leaders and staff to hand off requests for advice about incremental improvements to consulting firms, and refocus their advisory boards on critical competitive issues.

The first order of business is overhauling the boards’ membership to support this turn toward rapid innovation. In the past, the DoD has had some extraordinarily effective advisory boards. Cold War examples included the Jasons, the Gaither Committee, the Land Panel, and numerous others. More recently, the Defense Innovation Board had admirably carried that torch. Unfortunately, several of the boards have become moribund resting grounds for political apparatchiks. Today’s challenges demand the appointment of the best and brightest, regardless of party. 

For best results, the boards should include a mix of insiders and outsiders. Roughly speaking, one-third of the members should be DoD insiders who know the processes and politics; they can provide top cover to non-standard solutions. One-sixth of each board should be crazy DoD insiders: the rebels at work who’ve been struggling to get their great ideas heard. (Ask senior and mid-level managers to nominate their most innovative/creative rebels.) One-third should be crazy outsiders who have had new, unique insights in the last two years, who are in sync with the crazy insiders, and who can provide the insiders with “cover.” And the last sixth should be outsiders who represent “brand-name wisdom” to provide cover and historical context.

Once the new members are in place, DoD should ask for big and bold ideas in several key areas, including:

• Technology and innovation: Given finite budgets, how best to evaluate, choose, and scale a plethora of new technologies and new operational concepts?

• Business practices: Examine and explore entirely new ways of building commercial partnerships and influencing the private sector.

• Policy: Ensure we understand our adversaries and how they are fusing together military, economic, and private markets to challenge us.

• Human capital: How should we reshape the DoD’s personnel architecture to attract more technologists and fit into today’s more sclerotic career paths?

Finally, DoD leaders should ask for more than ideas; they should engage and lead the boards. They should set high expectations for engagement and implementation, and work up and down the chain to ensure recommendations are achievable. The boards should report to the principals of their sponsor organizations, who should regularly review whether the boards have delivered real value to the mission.

Americans are ready to answer the call to service to help the DoD and the nation reform and strengthen. The Biden administration and DoD leadership have the rare opportunity to completely rethink and reset its advisory boards. Successfully taking on this challenge will repair strained ties between the public and private sectors, and is essential to the future defense of our nation.

Messrs. Blank, Felter, and Shah co-teach a course at Stanford University titled “Technology, Innovation, and Modern War."