“We will actively seek innovative approaches to how we fight, how we posture our force, and how we leverage our asymmetric strengths and technological advantages. Innovation is paramount given the increasingly complex warfighting environment we expect to encounter.” – 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review
Maintaining technological superiority has been a vital component of U.S. military strategy for decades. Moving forward in a resource-constrained environment, that superiority will be increasingly at risk as near-peer competitors have invested heavily in asymmetric strategies, and leveraged civil-military integration. While the Department of Defense has touted its so-called “third offset strategy,” led by Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, and Defense Innovation Unit Experimental outposts in Silicon Valley and Boston as the solution to its challenges, DoD's innovation approach so far has been strong in buzzwords but lacking in clear objectives.
At the core of the department’s challenges is an outdated business model and business practices that deviate substantially from the commercial world and are inextricably linked to DoD’s acquisition system, to the detriment of innovation. DoD-sponsored studies from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, University of Maryland and Defense Business Board have noted that, domestically and internationally, innovation is now driven by commercial (non-DoD-funded) products, services and processes. The studies also assert that accessing and effectively using this innovation is critical in maintaining technological superiority, necessitating changes to requirements generation, resource allocation and acquisition processes to align them with private-sector best practices. Unfortunately, DoD, driven largely by budget constraints, has doubled down on its antiquated cost-based business practices that seek incremental adjustments to lower the cost of innovation rather than reward it.
To gain the future innovations it desires, DoD needs to align its requirements, budgeting and acquisition practices to attract, offer incentives and reward industrial base participants, investments and innovations. Further, Congress and DoD stakeholders must conduct meaningful oversight that properly calibrates for the risk inherent in realizing innovations that can provide technological superiority for our armed forces.
Industry has long recognized the need for various authorities for the department to circumvent the traditional acquisition system in the interest of national security, or to do business with small and non-traditional firms. As these authorities proliferate, however, with substantial involvement from senior DoD personnel, the question of why such concerted efforts are not made to reduce the barriers to innovation for all acquisitions of products and services begs to be asked.
Many of the technologies targeted in the third offset strategy, such as big data tools, autonomous information, robotics and additive manufacturing, are prevalent outside the government marketplace. In the long term, there must be a greater concerted effort to reduce the barriers across the board that have historically limited DoD’s access to the companies driving these innovations, rather than rely on a patchwork of special authorities.