In An Increasingly Dangerous World, A Culture Of Innovation Will Define Us

It’s time to think about innovation as mission acceleration – an ongoing process that should be a daily habit

Pete Newell

June 23, 2023

America has a history of generating its most inspiring and game-changing innovations in times of war, but we shouldn’t wait for the next conflict to start effectively solving problems at speed. 

It’s time to think about innovation as mission acceleration –  an ongoing process, not an outcome – that should be a daily habit. 

I spoke on this topic with Dr. Adam Lowther on the NucleCast podcast sponsored by the Advanced Nuclear Weapons Alliance Deterrence Center. We discussed various ideas for adding national security innovation to America’s defense culture, why that’s more important now than ever, and who can pick up the slack for our innovation stagnation in the near-term. 

Not a matter of if, but how we’ll react when

We live in a dangerous world filled with those who seek power for their own glory and want to destroy our way of life. The Chinese are building counters to our capabilities at a speed that we can’t keep up with anymore. It’s not a matter of when we will be drawn into a conflict, but how we will react when it happens. 

Non-state actors today have access to manufacturing systems and more that allow them to build exotic weapons that can be used to hurt us when and where they want. We must ensure that we have a resilient system to deter our adversaries and allow us to prevail if we are drawn into a conflict. This means building a system that will overwhelm anybody's ability to attack us and hope that we never have to use it. 

Building effective and sustainable defense systems requires adequate infrastructure and ready talent. Addressing those scarcities now will set up America’s DoD for mission acceleration when it counts.

Innovation is a process, not an outcome

There was a time when we could rely on our ability to be innovative, but we cannot do what we used to do. Our systems are strained, our manufacturing processes are dated, and we don’t have the facilities to build what we need today, let alone in an all-out conflict. It’s time to be more demanding about fixing the foundations of our aging defense systems. 

Our naval fleets, early warning systems, satellites, aircraft, and radar systems are out of date. Many of our alert systems are designed to defend us from attacks that are radically different today and will be inadequate in 20 years. 

It makes no sense to make incremental improvements to a deteriorating system. We must take seriously the need to define what the next system is and how to design it. 

This starts with creating an innovation doctrine that addresses the education and professionalization of people whose function is to drive mission acceleration every day. Until we do, we will constantly have to beg, borrow and look for heroes who are willing to sacrifice their careers to get something done. 

Having an innovation doctrine will boost the workforce, including engineers and scientists, required to build the systems and do the work of mission acceleration. Doctrine will lead to duty positions, which will  inspire professional education that will develop career paths devoted to mission acceleration. Without doctrine, it won’t happen. 

Back to the chalkboard: education for an innovation renaissance

Another major shortfall we face is that there simply aren’t enough people trained in modern problem-solving methods and skills, or in learning important trades. We need to make the education process – not just in universities, but in high schools, too – more exciting and about gaining real, meaningful experience. 

We have lost the art of the trades that build mission-critical skills in machining and robotics. Programming, auto mechanics, electronics and manufacturing classes were once part of the curriculum in high schools but are no more. The impact of this is real. There aren't enough welders in the United States, for example, to keep up with the demand, giving us few options for industrial repairs or production across a wide array of industries and services. 

We need to create ways to recruit people into the defense manufacturing base and retain them. How can we rethink academic courses so they're more rapid and effective, and develop people who can function inside large organizations while still continuing their certifications and degrees as required? Our work with the national academic course Hacking for Defense has shown us there is no lack of interest among young people to get involved and do meaningful work, but the pathways must be built to encourage them. 

Hear more from my chat with Adam in the full podcast discussion here, or jump into the topics directly at these timestamps: 

2:11: Innovation is a process, not an output

3:38: Mission acceleration in a nutshell

8:18: Recognizing critical problems and where they exists

13:06: Hacking for Defense as exciting and applicable education

16:52: How to engage students at the high school level

22:34: Why Innovation Doctrine is critical for change

24:26: Time to overhaul our systems 

28:00: Why now is the time to act 

31:33: Your strongest advocate is your former saboteur

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