Of late, the never-ending debate in Washington over U.S. defense policy has been dominated by two related topics. The first is the growing concern that this country is losing its long-held qualitative advantage in military capabilities. The second is the continuing decline in defense spending and the resulting need to reform the acquisition system in order to reduce the cost of the defense enterprise generally and ensure the availability of the resources necessary to acquire the next generation of dominant military systems. To meet these challenges, the Department of Defense is pursuing a set of related programs and policies under the broad heading of defense innovation. The rationale for this effort was defined succinctly by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work in his foundational memorandum on the subject:
“I am establishing a broad, department-wide initiative to pursue innovative ways to sustain and advance our military superiority for the 21st Century and improve business operations throughout the Department. We are entering an era where American dominance in key warfighting domains is eroding and we must find new and creative ways to sustain, and in some areas expand, our advantages even as we deal with more limited resources. This will require a focus on new capabilities and becoming more efficient in their development and fielding.”
The effort to encourage greater innovation makes sense, up to a point. Unfortunately, there is a growing tendency for Pentagon officials and defense experts alike to view innovation and efficiency as increasingly the domains of commercial companies and to minimize and, on occasion, even disparage the ability of the U.S. defense industry to produce cutting edge capabilities. The reason for this is a growing tendency among Pentagon officials and defense experts to conflate advances in basic technologies with innovation in military capabilities. While it is true that more new technology today comes from commercial rather than government investment, innovation in high-end defense products remains almost the exclusive domain of defense companies.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan witnessed a veritable explosion of innovation, including platforms and systems, tactics, techniques and procedures. Remember this is the same period when innovation by commercial companies was exploding. In a number of instances, these new capabilities were based on commercial innovations. But the creation of entire suites of capabilities to counter improvised explosive devices or provide real-time, multispectral tactical ISR and to integrate them on a wide range of platforms was due to the skills and even genius of the public and private defense industrial bases.
Defense companies continue to demonstrate a capacity for innovation that frankly far outstrips that of any commercial entity, not just in the U.S., but globally. The case of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is illustrative of this point. In a recent Capitol Hill forum on defense acquisition reform, the former director of the Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) office in the Pentagon, Dr. Christine Fox criticized this program declaring that “from a CAPE perspective, the JSF is not just over-cost, it’s over-dreamed.” While it is true that the plan for the JSF was overly optimistic and under-resourced, what is remarkable is how successful the program has been in meeting those dreams. Virtually everyone in the military currently involved with the program has declared it to be a game changer. The F-35 demonstrates that the defense industrial base can still make dreams come true.
Admittedly, there is one technology area which does pose a serious challenge for the acquisition system: information technology. The entire U.S. defense enterprise from individual weapons systems to platforms, individual units and command and control elements to supporting infrastructure is becoming increasingly information-centric. The result is an orders of magnitude improvement in the ability of the U.S. military to conduct the full range of missions. Much of the technology underpinning this revolution in military capabilities is commercial in nature. Moreover, the breadth and speed of innovation in commercial IT is such as to completely confound the traditional defense acquisition process.
This is even more the case when it comes to cyber security. It is clear that entirely new approaches to the acquisition of cyber capabilities and the management of military networks will be required if the defense department has any hope of staying abreast of the threat. If the U.S. military cannot successfully defend its systems and networks against the ever changing threat, current efforts at innovation, which are largely based on IT, will be for naught.
Without question, commercial companies of all types will have a greater role to play in defense innovation going forward than they have had in the past. But the ability of traditional U.S. defense companies to take the products of commercial innovation and create the systems, platforms and capabilities to ensure U.S. military dominance in the 21st Century remains second to none.
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