Can Defense Still Be an Innovating Legacy Sector?

Friday, February 12, 2016: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Wilson A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Richard van Atta, Institute for Defense Analyses, Alexandria, VA
Is the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) organized to respond successfully to a fundamentally changed environment of global technological innovation?

Technological superiority has been the foundation of U.S. defense strategy since the advent of the atomic bomb. The U.S. established this superiority over many years of research investment, experimentation, and deployment of advanced systems, often based on technological breakthroughs. Concomitant changes in organizations, operational tactics and doctrine were developed to take advantage of the new capabilities.

As Bonvillian and Weiss have clearly shown, the U.S. Defense sector has maintained an innovation dynamic through a “connected-model” of linkages between those sponsoring the development of “breakthrough” technological concepts, particularly the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and leaders who have provided both on-going support of DARPA and mechanisms to facilitate the transition of DARPA-developed capabilities.

DARPA was itself a unique, disruptive innovation established to remedy then existing shortfalls in national security innovation. DARPA’s programs coupled with focused technology leadership in the Office of the Secretary of Defense culminated in the “Offset Strategy” implemented in the 1980s and 90s, which is credited with transforming U.S. defense capabilities. Notably a common theme is that such innovative defense capabilities were introduced and supported by mechanisms largely outside of the “normal” DoD development and acquisition processes.

Changing dynamics of technology development and national security have since eroded the U.S. advantage in developing new military technologies, raising implications for future U.S. defense capabilities. While strategic advantage still can result from “game changers” derived from radical innovation, this advantage will go to those who field these as capabilities, not to those who just invent them. If DoD is to maintain its technological leadership, it needs to revamp and revitalize its technology development and implementation to more rapidly and effectively take advantage of the results of innovation. Key elements of this include:

  • Focused investments in the maturation of emerging technologies
  • Systematic efforts to seek out available technologies from around the world
  • Mechanisms to prototype novel systems capabilities and experiment with these in operational environments
  • Iterative “adaptive” acquisition processes.