The process of fixing the Defense Department’s (DoD) innovation adoption problem needs to begin at the congressional level, former defense officials and industry executives said this week at an Atlantic Council event.
That was a top-line takeaway from a report released on Wednesday during a virtual roundtable by the Atlantic Council’s Commission on Defense Innovation Adoption – a think-tank commission composed of former high-level DoD officials. The report explores how DoD can better integrate new technology into its arsenal, and make it easier for the military to buy off-the-shelf technology.
“In our time serving in the Defense Department, we have found that the United States does not have an innovation problem, but rather an innovation adoption problem,” former Defense Secretary Mark Esper said.
However, before DoD can adopt new technology at the speed and scale required to compete with China, legislators must loosen statutory limits in an array of areas – from reprogramming funds between projects mid-year to contracting with start-up companies – the report says.
“Our nation leads in many emerging technologies relevant to defense and security – from artificial intelligence and directed energy to quantum information technology and beyond. But the DoD struggles to identify, adopt, integrate, and field these technologies into military applications,” Esper added.
Esper, along with former U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, explained that the Pentagon struggles to get critical technology out of the prototype stage, across the bureaucratic “valley of death,” and into large-scale manufacture and deployment.
The report urges DoD to conduct several internal reforms, such as bypassing and streamlining the notoriously bureaucratic Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System process, which generates many of the official requirements needed to launch new weapons programs. The report also recommends that the Pentagon strengthen the Defense Innovation Unit.
But the majority of the recommendations require at least some action on the Hill.
For example, the report calls for Congress to accept less detailed budget data in the Pentagon’s annual requests. In return, Congress would get a new digital “dashboard” that lets staffers directly access the latest program information without waiting for defense officials to process a formal request for updates.
The bulk of the recommendations made by the report revolve around the Pentagon’s budgeting and programming process, much of which is driven by Congress. Esper and James highlighted a proposed pilot project that would give five Program Executive Officers (PEO) more authority to shift funding among the multiple procurement programs each PEO oversees, which would require congressional approval.
The commission also recommends Congress establish a $250 million fund in the fiscal year 2024 defense spending bill that the services can use to “facilitate the acceleration and scaling of novel capabilities into the hands of the warfighter,” James said. This proposal aims to reduce the innovation “lag time” gap, which can run between two and four years event after successful technology demonstrations until DoD makes a buying decision.
“This will significantly shorten the traditionally long lag times for successful vendors to receive funding while DoD finalizes requirements, funding, and contracts,” James said.