This New World Calls For A New National Security Strategy

Why the Department of Defense needs an Innovation Doctrine

Pete Newell

February 8, 2023

The world is different than it was 100, 10, even two years ago. Yet the most powerful government on earth still operates the way it has for nearly a century: slowly and closed off from its neighbors. It’s time to rethink our national security efforts.

The Department of Defense’s Defense Strategy and Defense budget prove that America is deeply entrenched in the distant past, using stale approaches to innovation that simply don’t work. How does the Pentagon go from its current 30-year innovation cycle to the three- to five-year cycles modern competition demands? It starts with reforming how we innovate internally, and starting to take seriously the innovation among our allies and partners. 

I spoke recently with Eric Lofgren, host of the Acquisition Talk Podcast, about the urgency of getting innovative defense prototypes into the field and the importance of working with partner nations to make the world a safer place. Here’s some of what we touched on:

Be willing to accept and promote, “Barely compliant”

The DoD likes to talk about innovation, but there has been no concerted effort to develop the changes needed to actually be more innovative. It’s time to have an honest discussion between government decision-makers about reforming how the Pentagon innovates. Instead of creating more bureaucracy and building more models of compliance than are necessary, the Pentagon must be willing to accept “good enough” solutions and strive to maintain enduring leadership to ensure continuity.

We can take a page from how the DoD operates in a time of crisis or intense competition: At those times, we have to sacrifice cost and performance to guarantee speed. Taking a 70 percent solution to advance our capabilities, we can learn enough to make the right adjustments. We have to be willing to teach compliance officers to say, “Be barely compliant. Be just good enough to prevent a train wreck. It doesn’t have to be perfect; it shouldn’t be perfect. Perfection takes time while lives hang in the balance.” 

‘Innovation Doctrine’ is crucial

The transient nature of the Pentagon where leadership and organizations come and go rapidly, degrades the necessary experience to support real change. The Pentagon should adopt a culture and set of guidelines that support cultural connection around innovation work. This would enable a new, innovation-based mentality to become a permanent part of national security. To incentivize this new way of working, staff should be reviewed on their ability to connect with and deliver ideas from the technology world. 

Many people involved in the DoD’s innovation cells – eg, the Defense Innovation Unit, the Rapid Equipping Force, Army Futures Command, AFWERX and NavalX, – leave the DoD to go somewhere in the private sector that values innovation. Innovation Doctrine creates organizational structure in jobs and outputs. It divides tasks and projects and shows you what's valued and what's not. Doctrine eventually will give you a human resources system that values what entrepreneurial innovators are doing and will enable the Pentagon to build a professional development system that finds, creates, grows and retains them. Without innovation doctrine, we won’t achieve organizational change. 

Why we need to work with our Allies

America’s problems are not just America’s problems; they're Allied problems. From supply chains to erupting conflicts around the globe, not everything begins and ends in the United States. Yet the Pentagon maintains a head-in-the-ground perspective on what our friends could offer us.  

The Pentagon has enough barriers for American companies to address, but it’s nearly impossible for companies from other nations to navigate our security, classification and contract issues. We don’t make it palatable to partner, and the irony is that we desperately need their ideas and technologies. We can learn from our neighbors, like Canada, how to improve processes to make America a better place for building international startups. Through the Hacking for Allies program we created, we are closely connected to the U.K. Australia and Norway, and have seen capabilities that could provide tangible solutions to some of our biggest problems. The Pentagon must learn to stretch itself to become a more fertile ground for friendly opportunities.

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

1:05 - The problem with the National Defense Strategy

2:55 - The promise offered by Hacking for Allies 

5:30 - Doing DOTMLPF in six months instead of six years

7:50 - Why Congress will have to drive change

10:00 - Acquisition risk reduction increases warfighter risk

12:25 - Joint assignments for innovation

14:40 - What we can learn from Ukraine's speed to incorporate new tech

16:30 - Story of heroic tech transition at the Rapid Equipping Force

23:30 - How to turn saboteurs into advocates

32:50 - What we can do in 3-5 years to deter China

35:00 - How to fix Defense Innovation Unit

40:00 - A look at the new Office of Strategic Capital

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