Getting Ahead of the Enemy’s Next Move

Jets And Aircraft Carrier

Not Just Hardware: Equipping Tomorrow’s Military Requires New Process Not Just New Technology

Lasers, drones, and artificial intelligence. The future is bright for brilliant minds working together to engineer the next game-changing wave of military technology. Just this month, the annual Sea-Air-Space Expo showcased an exciting number of new drones – from Booz Allen Hamilton’s MANTAS robot that is operated from a tablet or smartphone to the Office of Naval Research’s prototype vehicle that can skim above the surface or under the sea.

All the while, recent advances in solid-state fiber lasers have military leadership eager to develop and field high-energy weapons that could shoot down enemy aircraft from the mount of a ship, or as Lieutenant General Marshall B. Webb, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command recently expressed, destroy a combatant truck from an AC-130 at 10,000 feet.  For all the promise of this type of technology, however, it will be all for naught unless the Department of Defense find a means to improve the all-too-bureaucratic acquisition system.

We live in uncertain and challenging times, where our enemy combatants operate across the land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace domains with breathtaking speed. To be in contact with the enemy is to know the enemy, and we’ve learned after a decade and a half of combating terrorism and hacking of government and business servers alike, just how adaptive those adversaries are. 

If our military is to combat, let alone defeat, the 21st century enemy, they must have the means to meet that enemy with the most dominating advantages – from every corner, public and private – our nation has to offer.

The Pentagon’s current testing, development, and acquisition bureaucracy is simply too slow to deliver the advanced capability appropriate for warfare in the 21st century in the limited amount of time it is needed.  Successful segments of the private sector understand that time and adaptability is a resource to be capitalized. From Apple to Netflix, there are plenty of business-world examples where companies are successful because they could innovate and scale rapidly. And, of course, there are also cautionary tales when a company cannot adapt – or, worse, chooses not to change, despite the facts on the ground. Kodak may come to mind.  

In business or government, when a task is performed through legacy systems and culture as a matter of rote process, the outcome is often inefficient, ineffective, or just plain wrong. The consequences for businesses when they fail to develop, test, and adapt quickly is lost market share and poor fiduciary performance. For government, the similar scenario results in waste in taxpayer funds. For the military, where the stakes are highest, the consequences could be dire.

To avoid dire potential, the Pentagon will need to create a process for rapid acquisition and fielding of platforms and operational models that go beyond the current modus opreindi of simply putting “rapid acquisition” on a Pentagon office designation.  The new process would need to enjoy substantial dedicated funding, and authority to put rapid acquisition principles into practice.  

Private industry maintains agility in large part by creating governance structures that are event-based and designed with a bias for action. While the current Defense Acquisition Management System is also event based, these events are punctuated by a byzantine series of reviews and decision points. Oversight is important, but so is a process engineered for speed and iterative decision-making – especially when combating an ever-evolving enemy. 

Open architectures and spiral development processes in particular allow capability to be fielded quickly and provide the flexibility needed for systems and platforms to evolve over time as technology advances. In the software industry, it is often said that if one is comfortable with the product at first public release, then you have waited too long. So long as lives are not needlessly endangered, the same attitude would well serve Pentagon acquisition outcomes.

Relatedly, the Pentagon must be able to fail-forward. The great technological disruptions of our time did not come to be on the first attempt. Nuclear fusion, rockets capable of escaping the earth’s atmosphere, and the internet were the result of much trial and error. The threat landscape will change, so products will need the ability to adapt and improve…rapidly. 

The Pentagon also cannot be afraid to say “yes, let’s try.” In the private sector, incentives are applied at both the individual and programmatic level to build an overall culture in which calculated risk is tolerated and even encouraged. Incentives should drive a reward system that allows for the promotion of enterprising and exceptional individuals. It is the same culture seen in venture capitalism that has led to many of the great technological leaps forward in our everyday lives.  This culture will not develop without the Congress permitting some level of research and engineering failure – and without eviscerating Pentagon leadership for every “lost” dollar as a matter of course.

Congress also has another part to play to aid in shaping the critical requirements of any improved modern acquisition system—namely appropriated funds. Consistency and an ability to plan is important, so Continuing Resolutions and the application of year-to-year accounts such as Overseas Contingency Operations do little to encourage timely adoption of needed capability. 

Our ability to mobilize industry and innovators alike to field advanced capability is an asymmetric advantage our country has over our adversaries. While our competitors may possess superior quantities of legacy capabilities, our spirit of innovation has provided us superior quality. This advantage, however, is eroding as advanced technology, be it lasers or drones, proliferates. This last fact is acknowledged by our defense leadership as evidenced by the Defense Innovation Initiative and Third Offset Strategy.  Our hope is that these and more similar initiatives become commonplace. 

No doubt that equipping soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines for the 21st century fight will require the next generation gun, smarter munitions, and several other incremental and necessary inventions normally displayed at annual defense expos. But the key for our country to keep ahead of the enemy is the ability to acquire that capability quickly, and then shift to an improved version just as quickly. Or better yet, ahead the enemy’s next move.  Our troops require no less than the entirety of our national technological might, as well as industrial speed and agility, to provide a consistent and uncommon advantage.  

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