Rethinking defence innovation for modern needs
April 20, 2023
The United Kingdom and its allies are falling behind shared adversaries in the defence, innovation and emergent warfighting domains for one reason: we are slower. Several factors contribute to our slow pace; rapidly changing operating environments, shrinking western defence budgets, and antiquated acquisition and innovation methods weigh us down on the global stage. One thing that could help is fostering allied cooperation to maximize our capacity to innovate at speed.
I recently discussed how best to address our faltering progress as global leaders with iO Director Danny Watts on his podcast, The Defence Series. Below are some takeaways from our discussion about why we must speed up defence acquisition cycles, foster more collaboration among allies and continue to take pages from the Silicon Valley innovation playbook.
The free world is falling dangerously behind its adversaries. Bureaucracy and legal constraints have morphed once rapid movement into what we are witnessing today: 30-year acquisition cycles to get new technology into the hands of our warfighters. Our failure to acknowledge global threats appropriately, coupled with dwindling economies have left us with smaller budgets, fewer people and resources, and increasingly complex operating environments. We need to build a new operating concept that includes acquisition that we can put into play in real time: that’s three-year cycles alongside 30-year cycles, becoming ambidextrous. We cannot remain competitive while building long-term acquisition programs without having simultaneous shorter-term options
Bolster Allied collaboration
Leveraging friendly nations’ problem-solving capacity is one of the surest methods to fast-track innovation. It is surprising how poorly we as countries have done in building those relationships to fix problems. Though bureaucracy and confusing red tape are some of the most common barriers to allied cooperation there is space to build strong networks, demystify the allies’ acquisition processes, and develop programs to offer access to new national markets. BMNT’s program, Hacking 4 Allies has devised a groundbreaking solution to this challenge by connecting allied startup and scaleup companies that are responding to shared problems with American venture firms and Pentagon officials. The result has been unforeseen collaboration and growth for all the nations involved.
A more innovative national security
The U.S., UK, and its allies don’t have to become replicas of Silicon Valley to succeed in innovation. We can adopt a problem-centric approach and some of Silicon Valley’s best practices – such as being more inclusive, pivoting, iterating and learning fast. Accelerating defence innovation isn’t just about making use of technology, it is about sociology. Most organisational, or people, problems mask themselves as technology problems, and then we acquire solutions that solve a symptom. That is wasteful. My colleague William Treseder said not too long ago, “The cost of duplication is so high because the cost of coordination is underestimated”; the more we invest in allied coordination, the closer we get to solving connecting the right people to the right problem, at pace.
For more on how we can accelerate defence innovation, listen to my full conversation with Danny here or skip to the timestamps below.
2:48: This is the most common pitfall in defence innovation
5:21: How we can get people to think about problems differently
18:46: Why we need innovation in defence
21:00: What is innovation theater … and why it isn’t as bad as everyone thinks
25:15: Brave vs. Smart – how Allied militaries can become more effective
27:10: The case for innovation doctrine
32:30: My best advice for someone wanting to innovate for defence
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