To deter conflict, the Pentagon must accelerate innovation adoption
The era of great-power competition is fully underway and has arguably transitioned to a more dangerous level. Russia’s unwarranted invasion of Ukraine and China’s increasing tensions with Washington — coupled with Moscow’s and Beijing’s growing closeness — are proof positive that the world’s leading autocracies aim to change the global rules to suit their malevolent aims. The freedoms many of the world’s democracies have enjoyed for decades are under increasing threat.
The Biden administration has called the next ten years the “decisive decade,” and a bipartisan Congress has appropriated the largest defense budget ever to meet this challenge.
The Defense Department (DOD), through two different administrations now, also recognizes these tough times. It has undertaken several initiatives over the last several years to retain its overmatch over Russia, and especially China, in areas ranging from personnel and logistics to training and doctrine.
One of the most critical tasks on this agenda is modernizing the force with new weapons systems and equipment to ensure an advantage against our potential adversaries. Quickly adopting cutting-edge technology, which is mostly found in the commercial sector, is the key to guaranteeing U.S. military dominance critical to deterring war and winning one if all else fails.
The United States is the global leader when it comes to innovation; we are the envy of the world. However, the Pentagon’s ability to quickly adopt advanced technology is woefully inadequate.
Organizational initiatives over the years such as the Defense Innovation Unit, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and Army Futures Command have helped address this problem. But more must be done given the storm clouds ahead. That is why we, as former senior Pentagon leaders and Capitol Hill veterans, agreed to chair the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption, which is focused on providing DOD and Congress with actionable solutions to accelerate the department’s adoption of commercial technology.
Many startups and small high-tech firms are developing novel solutions to the warfighting problems the Pentagon has identified. However, they face steep regulatory barriers, inadequate communication, and uncertainty about the demand for their product that questions their ultimate viability. If fortunate enough to survive that gauntlet, they then face the infamous “valley of death” — the 18-to-24-month period of no funding that it often takes DOD to award a contract. It is hard to keep employees and investor support for that long, especially if the Pentagon is only committing to buy a few prototypes.
A major obstacle to better outcomes is DOD’s complicated, heavily regulated, risk-averse acquisition processes. The current system requires multiple signoffs and layers of review that make it easy for participants to slow a program down, or even avoid using new authorities given them by Congress to speed things up — because incentives do not exist to be bold and to move fast.
Another challenge, imposed on the Pentagon by Congress, are the budget rules and restrictions that severely limit DOD’s ability to quickly adapt to changes in the threat, supply chain, technology, or tactics. The inflexibility of the department’s budget at meaningful dollar amounts leaves the United States unable to deliver key capabilities to match the increasing speed of ingenuity by America’s adversaries.
Fortunately, there are sensible solutions our commission has identified to begin addressing these impediments and more. Some will require collaboration between the Pentagon and Congress; others demand DOD take better advantage of existing authorities, and a few call on department leadership to alter the status quo.
For example, the Pentagon should work with Congress to simplify its acquisition process by empowering Program Executive Officers (PEOs) to move away from individual program management to broader capability portfolio management. This would provide PEOs flexibility to make timely decisions to fund the best tech available for our warfighters.
Another recommendation is to increase spending flexibility for acquisition officials by consolidating program elements and budget line items — with appropriate Congressional oversight — so that DOD can more easily insert novel technologies into the force without having to start a new program, the essence of the “valley of death.”
A third major idea is to improve innovation adoption by reducing DOD barriers to doing business with the private sector, and then signal the department’s intent to purchase an item once its utility shows promise. Restoring the Defense Innovation Unit as a direct report to the Deputy Secretary of Defense, and properly resourcing it, could enable fulfillment of those objectives.
These are just a few of our recommendations to accelerate the adoption of innovation in the Pentagon. In the coming weeks, the commission will release its interim report with a full list of recommendations for Congress and DOD. We are confident that, if implemented, the United States will be better prepared for the challenges ahead, and more capable of winning the future.
Dr. Mark Esper was the 27th Secretary of Defense and is a board director of the Atlantic Council and co-chair of its Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption
Deborah Lee James was the 23rd Secretary of the Air Force and is a board director of the Atlantic Council and a co-chair of its Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption
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