What’s Holding Back US Defense Innovation?

Capt. Jeremey Wimer tries on a newly issued fighter helmet while gearing up Feb. 21 at the 18th Fighter Squadron at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The new helmet mounted queing system has targeting technology that projects holographic data on the inside right of the visor in the form of a container, or que and allows pilots to continually survey and distinguish between friendly and enemy air and ground targets. Captain Wimer is an F-16 Fighting Falcon pilot. (U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Christopher Griffin)

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A new report published by Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology urges the Pentagon to adopt a new innovation strategy.

The current approach “is more akin to innovation tourism — with the DoD sampling the local fare of the United States’ various tech hubs — than a bona fide strategy for bringing emerging technologies into the department,” the report notes.

The report, Ending Innovation Tourism: Rethinking the U.S. Military’s Approach to Emerging Technology Adoption, lays out several recommendations DoD could take today to accelerate the types of innovations needed to remain competitive against near-peer adversaries.

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Authors Melissa Flagg and Jack Corrigan note that the challenges around DoD innovation — or lack thereof — are many and multifaceted, but the crux of the matter is “under the DoD’s current organizational structure, defense innovation is disconnected from defense procurement.”

The report notes that DoD has made some positive strides to adapt to an environment in which the private tech sector has displaced it as the driver of innovation. While innovation offices established by the DoD have produced some “one-off tools” and “bolt-ons” to existing military tech, they have “impacted only small slivers” of “the major platforms and systems that account for the vast majority of military warfighting capabilities,” the report observes.

Reasons for this state of affairs range from Pentagon procurement requirements to business models. But a primary reason among many, the authors note, is that DoD’s innovation efforts are tied to the research & development part of the budget and not to specific procurement programs — especially so-called “programs of record” for the largest DoD projects.

Programs of record are funded through congressional appropriations and managed by Pentagon procurement managers and program executive officers, who tend to choose among a select few prime contractors they know and trust. 

Because innovation budgets are tied to R&D programs, “This placement completely disconnects them from the procurement ecosystem, with separate chains of command, budget processes, and authorities,” the report notes. Further, “The problem is that the current organizational structure of the DoD acquisition ecosystem restricts them to innovating around the edges.”

“The DoD must act immediately to implement a true innovation strategy using the authorities it currently has at its disposal,” the report urges. “The country cannot allow perfection to be the enemy of progress.”

According to breakingdefense.com, the report’s recommendations include the following:

  • Define innovation goals and increase transparency.
  • Share and use market intelligence across the acquisition ecosystem.
  • Create safe spaces for collaboration.