In Securing Our Future, Innovation Is Imperative

By Lawrence P. Farrell Jr.
Throughout U.S. history, advances in military capability have been fueled by innovation. The military services consistently have managed to use technology in new and creative ways to improve battlefield effectiveness.  

The application of existing technology is a quick and effective way of enabling U.S. forces to out-think enemies by penetrating the adversary’s decision-making cycle, known as the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide and Act).  

The nation also has turned to invention for military capability. This is how the Defense Department has acquired many of its major systems and platforms, with long and costly development timelines, and pushing state of the art so vigorously that schedule and cost overruns have become common.

But the era of big invention is coming to a close, at least for the foreseeable future. Even today’s generous budgets cannot support existing acquisition plans in the context of the nation’s unsustainable economic circumstances.

So where do we go now?  One answer may be found in a quote from an old British flag officer: “We are now out of money, so we must begin to think.” The financial problems we face are truly staggering. The numbers are so big as to be incomprehensible. The scientist Richard Feynman put it well: “There are 10 ^11 stars in the galaxy.  That used to be a large number.  But it’s only a hundred billion. It’s less than the national deficit. We used to call them astronomical numbers. Now we should call them economical numbers.”

In the defense business, it is clear that things must change. Perhaps we should return to the basics of innovation.

The Coast Guard recently hosted its 10th Innovation Exposition. Its leaders celebrated a decade of pursuing novel ways of doing business, while applying existing technology to create efficiencies and new capabilities. One could argue that the Coast Guard is ahead of the other services in valuing and using innovation. According to one official, “A productivity boom has transformed how private enterprises react to the customer and changing markets while the federal government remains largely unchanged and lagging behind in terms of efficiency, agility and service quality.”

Senior vice president of FedEx David Zanca spoke at the conference on this issue. He asserted that real innovation does not equal invention, but arises from creative application of existing technology. He cited several examples from his own company: an iPhone app for FedEx services, a shipping app on Windows Outlook, a sensor inside packages that tracks and reports temperature and other environmental conditions inside critical shipments.  

FedEx has institutionalized innovation in the company by encouraging employees to seek smart solutions to problems. The company focuses on early adoption of innovation in order to get ahead of competitors. The bottom line: sustainability and efficiency over the long term.

Zanca cited Apple Computer as a model of innovation. It does little invention or basic research. The company’s biggest success stories — the iPhone, iTouch, iPad, iTunes and App store — are all based on pre-existing technology. When the iPhone and App store rolled out in July 2008, they had one application. Eighteen months later, there were 134,000 third-party apps and 3 billion downloads.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates has launched an efficiency campaign to save $100 billion in overhead costs over five years. Innovation here might be in order.

It is fair to expect that major programs will be further squeezed. It is a huge concern that our inefficient acquisition system continues to be slow in coming up with new contract vehicles, and that the Defense Department is likely to dip into modernization accounts to pay for other needs. The 2012 budget will be an indicator.

It is also worrisome that the services are beginning to retrench on previous plans. The Air Force is moving existing platforms (bombers and fighters) to the right and enhancing them with structural upgrades and avionics. This is in recognition of the slowdown and increased cost of the F-35 as well as the lack of an approved plan for a long-range strike platform. Rather than focus on a new bomber, the Air Force will consider a larger family of strike systems, including aircraft, missile and surveillance assets. It plans to collaborate with the Navy on this effort. The Air Force also announced that its next fighter — the sixth generation, due around 2030 — will have both manned and unmanned versions. One can reasonably expect the other services to adopt similar strategies.

Adding to this tough set of problems — tight budgets, aging platforms, rising acquisition costs — is the fact that future U.S. adversaries are innovating too, and in quite effective ways. As a result, we need to pick up the pace.

There is no other choice. We are where we are, and must acknowledge and deal with it. The alternative is to fall into the trap postulated by the Greek orator Demosthenes, who said: “ What each man wishes, he believes to be true.” We may have been doing some of that for the past several years, believing against all evidence that we could continue along the current acquisition path. This also brings to mind the words of UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden: “Things turn out best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.”

Innovation in defense is a necessity, not an option.

Topics: Science and Engineering Technology

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