How to Unlock Innovation at the Defense Department

By Scott Trail
The United States is losing its technological edge. As Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall states in Better Buying Power 3.0, the wide availability of advanced computing technologies and vulnerability of intellectual property is challenging our technological superiority. This challenge is occurring at a time when producing new systems takes 10 to 20 years and they end up closely resembling those fielded decades earlier.

Innovation was not always this stagnant. During the late 1960s through the early 1980s, innovation flourished at the Defense Department. Since then, new programs — especially large ones — replaced existing systems with upgraded versions. In 2014, eight out of the 10 largest defense programs were replacements or upgrades of existing equipment. While providing improved capability, these eight programs hold little hope of fundamentally changing warfare. The two arguable exceptions are the V-22 and joint strike fighter programs. Both experienced delays during development.

What happened in the 1980s to stifle innovation? With reports of $600 toilet seats dominating the evening news and corruption involving senior Pentagon officials, Congress passed over 240 laws between 1985 and 1986. In response the Defense Department created an undersecretary of defense, senior government positions, military executive and vice chief posts. Nearly 11 months of development contract cycle time growth can be attributed to systems developed since 1980. The increase in legislation likely contributed heavily to that cycle time increase. Of this slew of legislation, the most influential was the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act.

The act, as interpreted, has created an impenetrable wall between the services, which approve requirements, and the acquisition process managed by the office of the secretary of defense. But, according to a 2010 RAND Corp. study, this wall exists despite the fact that members of Congress did not intend it to be built. In turn, the barrier between services and OSD gave rise to the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System in 2002. 

The JCIDS process is a capabilities-based assessment that establishes detailed, top down, rigid requirements that can take two years to complete. For over 14 years, this lengthy and detailed requirements process has produced systems with little innovation, largely resembling the systems they replace.

Based on the requirements produced by JCIDS, large program offices are charged with development of the system.  At the program office level, military standards and service specific certification requirements are relied upon heavily.  Industry or even other government agency requirements and certification processes are typically not considered. This results in duplicated effort between government and industry and serves as a barrier to leveraging commercial innovation. With rigid standards established and outside ideas eschewed, little innovation occurs during system development.

This stifling of innovation can be attributed at least in part to melding of development, production and support functions under a single program office. The program office model is not optimized for every phase of a system’s life cycle. Technology development and demonstration requires higher risk tolerance and more open processes to address the unknowns inherent during the development phase. Production, with its focus on large-scale repeatable processes and support functions, rightly seeks to eliminate all unknowns through rigid standards and processes. While a low-risk approach is appropriate for production, it stifles innovation during development.

The process-centered bias toward the norm becomes reinforced at the program office when failures inherent with development arise. Failures are viewed as something to be avoided and a sign of program weaknesses that threaten its survival. In attempting to avoid failures and appear low risk, programs often defer critical technical challenges and testing until later in the program. Ironically, deferring key technology development and testing is a high-risk proposition as problems are revealed much later in the program where they are more expensive and time consuming to correct. 

The top down, risk averse, program centric approach to innovation contrasts sharply with that occurring in industry. In the corporate model, early requirements are few and possible solutions are limitless.

As technology matures from an idea to production, industry provides teams with the size, culture and processes appropriate to the phase of the life cycle. 

The life cycle and corresponding teams are broken generally into four phases:  Innovation — the ideas; research and development — will it work?; development — make it work; and programs — produce and deliver. 

Early in the cycle, teams are small, potential solutions are many, requirements are broad and risk tolerance is high. Prototyping starts early, with mockups of foam and cardboard. Failure is expected and even embraced as an opportunity to remove unknowns, mature the system and learn. Systems that maintain initial assumptions and contribute to the company’s core strategy continue to mature. Those that don’t maintain assumptions or relevancy fail early. As the system matures, team size increases, solutions narrow, requirements become more defined and tolerance for risk diminishes.

For industry, this process of identifying, maturing and bringing innovative technology to market must be fast. Speed is viewed as a strategic advantage, which is as important as the technology itself. To enable this speed, industry often develops disruptive products by integrating existing technology in innovative ways. The iPhone provides a good illustration.

Even in the corporate world, innovative technologies require time to mature.  A current example is Sikorsky’s S-97 coaxial compound helicopter. The first demonstration of that technology was in 1973 with the Sikorsky S-69. The concept was demonstrated, but the technology of the time did not support operational production. Thirty-five years later the X-2, a modernized S-69 technology demonstrator, achieved first flight. 

The lessons from the X-2 program were used to build the larger scale S-97 with its first flight planned later this year. Ultimately, the program is targeted for the Army led Future Vertical Lift program, which is expected to fly in the 2030s. The process followed by Sikorsky demonstrated fundamental principles of corporate innovation. It started with a challenge of increasing the speed of rotary wing aviation. The innovation contributed to Sikorsky’s core strategy. Multiple prototypes and incremental investments were made to demonstrate the concept. Each prototype and investment increased incrementally in size as the technology was demonstrated. The technology has taken a long time to develop, but will also provide a leap ahead in helicopter capability.

In order for the Defense Department to realize innovation at the pace and scope of private industry, it needs to adopt its strategy, cultures and processes. Innovative cultures and processes exist within the Pentagon. Unlocking that inherent innovation starts with changing how requirements are developed.

Instead of top down, detailed requirements, JCIDS should produce a prioritized list of national defense challenges. The list should be forward looking asking not “what do we need?” but rather “what could we do?”

Priority would be based on which challenges best addressed the core national defense strategy. The prioritized list could be used to support multiple portfolios of various programs as long as they support the overarching challenges. Creating requirements that support a portfolio of programs eliminates the process of staffing and approving detailed requirements for individual programs, reducing bureaucracy and increasing speed. 

Once challenges are established and prioritized, the technology concept refinement and development should be led by organizations whose culture, size, risk tolerance and processes are appropriate for the maturity of the system’s phase in the life cycle. Specifically, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, NASA, any of the 41 national laboratories or a combination of the aforementioned should partner with industry to develop the long range disruptive technologies of the future. 

After the technologies are developed by the labs, military service organizations such as the Army Research Laboratory, the Air Force Research Laboratory or the Naval Research Laboratory could lead the development and demonstration phase to include engineering development model testing.

These laboratories are small, have creative cultures and are more accepting of failure than program offices. Expanding the role of these labs throughout system development will decrease schedule and risk as fear of failure is reduced and challenges are identified and corrected early or programs fail early.   

An example of this concept is the Ultra Heavy-Lift Amphibious Connector program. The UHAC is being developed to solve the Marine Corps’ challenge of transporting large quantities of materiel and troops from ship to shore. The UHAC uses air-filled track technology developed by DARPA that is currently being demonstrated by the Office of Naval Research. The program is progressing on schedule with a half-scale prototype participating in the annual Rim of the Pacific military exercise last July.

Maintaining development of the UHAC through engineering and development model testing would continue the momentum brought by a risk tolerant culture that avoids sacrificing speed for perfect knowledge. Once development was complete, the program office would take the lead for the production and deployment phase where deliberate processes and elimination of unknowns are appropriate. 

In deciding to enter production, speed should be considered as a strategic enabler over fielding full capability in a single step. Defeating the fast follower requires fielding new innovations first, even if the potential capability is not fully realized. If the system is safe and improved over existing systems, it should be fielded. To leverage the latest technology and realize full potential, regular upgrade cycles should be included from program inception.   

In addition to large technological leaps with regular improvement cycles, rapid, less ambitious efforts should also be pursued. Innovations could be commercial products, integrating existing systems or new software. Removing barriers to commerciality and accepting more commercial standards and certification, where appropriate, would remove many barriers to rapidly fielding existing technology. 

Existing barriers in defense acquisition suppress the innovation that abounds across the Defense Department. War fighters of all ranks, DARPA technologists, industry and academics, can provide the organizations, cultures and processes that have delivered world-changing innovations in the past. The challenge today is unlocking the existing innovative organizations, cultures, and processes to realize the world changing technologies of tomorrow.

Lt. Col. Scott Trail is a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, served two tours as an MV-22 Osprey developmental test pilot and was selected for the Acquisition Management Professional MOS in the V-22 Joint Program Office.

Topics: Business Trends, Doing Business with the Government, Defense Department, Science and Engineering Technology

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