The Pentagon has an innovation adoption problem that’s part of a system that does not encourage new techniques, processes or technologies, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said at a Wednesday rollout of a new report on defense innovation.
James used the example of the fast fielding of the B-21 Raider bomber in December as an example of success in remarks during a rollout of the interim report on the Commission on Defense Innovation at the Atlantic Council.
The most important reason the bomber was developed quickly, James said was the bomber had “fewer checkers checking the checkers.” It had intentionally been placed in the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office, one of “these pockets of innovation” that have sprung up in the Pentagon over the last 10 years.
Other keys to speed in unveiling the new strategic bomber were using only mature technologies, keeping the requirements stable and pushing open architecture making the platform more capable of faster modernization once in the inventory.
Former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, another member of the commission with James, said this new era of competition with China particularly, demands that the Pentagon “accelerate … the adoption of new technology.”
Quoting President Xi Jinping’s signal to the People’s Liberation Army to be ready for a possible military move against Taiwan in 2027, he added 2027 is only two budget cycles away. Two budget cycles are also the time it would take a new technology to move through the internal Pentagon budgeting process and then through to Congress to begin production.
“We’re way behind; we’ve got to be serious about this,” said Esper.
Commission member Ellen Lord, who served as the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer in the Trump administration, said “there’s never been a more opportune time” to streamline the acquisition process. But “to start writing contracts” that smaller firms need to survive the so-called valley of death the 18- to 24-month period where a technology, system or platform remains in tightly regulated spending categories.
The best way to do that, Lord said, was “to move from piles of paper to electronic databases” dissecting the project that is constantly updated for quicker approval to raise that contract to build to scale.
Congress needs to “delegate, delegate, delegate,” as does the Pentagon, Lord said at the Atlantic Council event. The council created the commission consisting of former Pentagon officials and the defense industry with the goal of delivering specific recommendations that can be adopted quickly.
James added, now the office of the secretary of defense, the services themselves and “eight different offices” are reviewing that single proposal potentially raising more questions that must be answered and delaying it further. “One ‘no’ shuts it down,” she said.
Michèle Flournoy, a former DoD undersecretary for policy, said, “where the department often stumbles is human talent” which puts a premium on being risk-averse across the buying workforce.
“You have to train [acquisition officers] on new authorities” available to them to move good ideas into adoption “and why we need them,” she said. Flournoy added those workers must be rewarded and that means having promotion opportunities.
The panelists added that taking risks can lead to failures, but lessons can be learned from that experience that will send other projects more speedily into production.
“Most of the innovation [in cutting-edge technologies] is being done in the private sector,” Lord said. There are companies large and small that don’t face the cumbersome budgeting cycle or the regulations and rules that cover defense spending.
“Input of leadership” at the defense secretary, service secretary and service chief level “to scour the budget to find the money” to spur innovation, like the establishment of the Army’s Future Command, is essential Esper said. That allows teaching the bureaucracy “a different way of doing” business. That hands-on leadership has to continue with Congress to build trust over why these are important changes.