'We’re Always At War. You Just Have To Find The Battlefield'

The U.S. has to become better than its adversaries if it doesn’t want to get run over by them

Pete Newell

July 20, 2023

The U.S. has existed in a semi-relaxed state of efficiency for 60 years, but given national security threats we face from China, Russia and elsewhere, we can’t afford to stay that way. There is ongoing global friction among powerful nations struggling to outpace and outmaneuver each other for a position at the top, especially in the realm of technological innovation.

We tend to be surprised by where conflicts break out, why, and the speed at which a seemingly minor scuffle can erupt into a major confrontation that draws in global participation. We are experiencing a near peer competition right on NATO’s doorstep between Russia and Ukraine. Acknowledging that we will continually be strategically surprised is a key point. The U.S. must also acknowledge that, while China cannot eclipse our military capacity today, they are on a trajectory to do so. While we may be improving some capabilities, our pace does not match theirs. This means that once they eclipse us, it will be hard to catch up again. America has to become better than its adversaries if it doesn’t want to get run over by them.

The conflict is continuous. Complacency will be catastrophic. 

As I explained recently to Rob Slaughter, host of the Defense Unicorns podcast, we are always at war, we just have to figure out where the battlefield is. In a wide-ranging conversation about the current state of national security innovation in the U.S., Rob and I spoke about what we can do to awaken our sense of urgency before our adversaries overtake us. It should start by making Mission Acceleration a cultural norm.

Mission Acceleration puts effectiveness at the forefront of everything we do to accomplish the work of rapid problem-solving. Putting the focus here is one of the most important changes DoD can make today to ensure we’re not going through the motions of innovation, but instead are continuously solving mission-critical problems with speed and urgency. 

Many people hone in on overhauling the acquisition system – also necessary, but not our best first step.  A first step,  as I see it, is in realigning the requirements process. We can create a strategic advantage by focusing first on problem and customer discovery, and moving requirements to the tail end of the innovation pipeline where they can be examined for relevancy.

All these efforts have to happen at a fast cycle speed just to keep up with the global pace. It sounds like a daunting task, but our adversaries have been perfecting the cycle for decades, and we know America’s DoD is highly capable of this kind of focus if it prioritizes it. The Army’s defunct Rapid Equipping Force is an ideal example. It solved real problems at speed, equipped people with those solutions and put them straight to work.

Now we’re starting to see a Mission Acceleration mindset among the innovation units taking on critical challenges around the services and government, such as the TSA, Air Force’s AFWERX and the Navy’s NavalX.

Where innovation efforts are working in DoD … and where they’re not

On the path toward rapid-problem-solving, America is making strides in some areas and is struggling in others. 

One of the nuances the Federal Government has gotten right recently is that it no longer sees innovators and entrepreneurs as insurgents, but rather values them as a necessary part of the organization. 

Similarly, we are beginning to see appreciation for grassroots efforts like the spark cells from AFWERX, where people are solving their own problems rather than waiting for the bureaucracy to do it for them. Leading innovators like AFWERX’s Nate Diller and George Mason University’s Eric Lofgren are becoming Congressional staffers, and that’s a good sign. Their influence on the government’s decision-making process will further the cause of innovation for mission acceleration.

Still, the DoD’s efforts to stand up innovation units still doesn’t fix the most glaring problem facing us: the acquisition system. Without addressing the source, all our valiant efforts to solve problems at speed are undermined. The Federal Acquisition System is good for what it was designed to do, but it is not intended to support rapid innovation. Rather than continually discussing changing the FAR, it’s time to create a new parallel system to use private capital and commercial companies as a force multiplier. This is the heart of the Roadmap for Congress I co-authored with Joe Felter and Steve Blank recently. 

More about how we can advance national security innovation in my full interview with Rob here, or skip to these timestamps below: 

5:01: Reimagining the Rapid Equipping Force as a problem-generating, team-building organization

7:50: Finding problems rather than forcing solutions 

13:54: Knowing where the war is and how to supply solutions at speed

18:58: When to be efficient, when to be effective

21:03: The best advice I got as REF Director 

29:49: Learning how to build high-functioning organizations 

32:47: What innovation leaders need to know 

35:27: My take on how certain innovation hubs are performing

41:52: Why the DoD needs an innovation doctrine  

45:53: What the TSA got right about innovation

54:05: My advice for younger workforce trying to solve mission problems

1:02: There’s a lot of power in people’s stories; don’t be afraid to tell your own

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