Four Essential Rules for Developing Revolutionary Networked Capabilities
The Defense Department is undertaking a challenging mission to prepare for both limited conflicts and emerging near-peer threats.
This mission will require operating in hostile environments full of cheap commercially produced systems that utilize artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics and internet-of-things technological breakthroughs. These revolutionary advances will allow enemy forces to make lightning-fast operational decisions based on sensor cognition and allow for real-time data driven force synchronization to supplement human observation and decision making.
These capabilities will allow traditionally weaker forces to seize the initiative and execute the chain of decisions and actions required to neutralize capabilities before the U.S. military can even project force into the operational environments. Weapon systems that cost less than $1 million to procure will effectively eliminate the effectiveness of multibillion-dollar weapon systems like naval carrier groups, manned fighter aircraft and integrated missile defense systems.
The U.S defense acquisition process must improve the transfer of new technologies and end user feedback between development steps, implement proven early stage development design processes, and better incentivize commercial developer participation in defense capability development to compete in this new operating environment.
The Defense Department is recognizing that some of the legacy franchise systems that are pillars of its budgets will become liabilities in the future operating environment. For example, the Pentagon is phasing out the JSTARS air surveillance franchise and the Marine Corps made the decision to discontinue vulnerable amphibious ships.
These efforts are encouraging and will prevent the earmarking of billions of dollars that could be used to develop more effective solutions. But the department cannot just rely on cutting programs. The existing procurement process is not designed to develop the new solutions needed to compete in the future operational environment or integrate them into existing defense capabilities. The process needs to reform its new product development principles and refine its organizational structure to attract the commercial developers and talent necessary to create overmatch capabilities against these new threats.
To counter these threats, it is essential to not just focus on integrating the latest available technology into existing platforms. Simply adding new technology to existing platforms that are designed for an increasingly obsolete operational environment has been shown to fail in previous defense and commercial projects. Networked capabilities that successfully implement AI and new technologies into tactical capabilities will be a step-by-step evolution rather than a one-time cataclysmic revolution. New commercial development incentives, organizational structures, and increased testing and evaluation capabilities will be needed to effectively manage this step-by-step evolution.
Early system field testing competitions need to be implemented to incentivize and de-risk the development of risky innovative solutions for commercial developers. The latest commercial sector development management processes will be necessary to achieve development milestones and deliver capabilities on time.
Two recently published books based on historical analysis provide excellent guidance on how to both create the organizational environment and development mindset necessary to achieve these goals and improve early-stage development success of revolutionary defense solutions. Loonshots: How to Nurture Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases and Transform Industries, by Safi Bahcall, describes research and development management concepts that maximize the success rate of effective innovative solution development. Christian Brose’s The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare describes both the new emerging operational threat environment and recommends methods to work within the current procurement system to incentivize the development of the risky and unproven solutions that will soon be the backbone of the U.S. national defense strategy.
Concepts explained in these two books can describe a set of organizational changes to the capability procurement process that will ensure the U.S. military maintains operational overmatch on future potential threats.
The current procurement process impedes the development of new revolutionary capabilities. It is easier to refine and improve existing systems with standalone user needs documents refined over decades of development. Bahcall in Loonshots refers to these existing systems that are lower risk for commercial developers and have been the cornerstone of defense funding as franchises. Riskier new solutions will continue to be crowded out by franchises in the procurement process if only the current procurement processes are utilized.
For the last 40 years, the Defense Department has maintained a capabilities development and procurement system that mainly funds, develops and builds franchise solutions, not revolutionary innovations.
Brose in Kill Chain states that much of the commercial technology sector and private capital have turned away from committing resources to early-stage defense solutions development due to slow development processes, unpredictable demands and biased evaluation criteria. This has created a consolidated commercial defense industry reliant on developing less risky franchises that are sustained and improved with each funding cycle.
But the new networked solutions the U.S. military needs are not franchise solutions. They are high risk, new capabilities solutions.
Development incentives, processes and organization capabilities need to be tailored to new capabilities solutions in early stage development.
Both private commercial companies and government organizations must feel like the risks of spending resources on nascent ideas are mitigated by the incentives and new processes put in place to foster early stage ideas.
The current procurement process has a labyrinth of phase gates and design reviews intended to eliminate ineffective and unnecessary early stage developments as soon as possible. These well-intentioned efforts often kill off new systems that have higher risk designs and require more in-depth analysis to be integrated into operational and organizational capabilities.
Bahcall provides a proven series of rules to prevent this problem of early development project risk. It is based on the organizational principles implemented by Vannevar Bush while managing the development of early-stage revolutionary solutions like radar through the high stakes World War II weapons procurement process.
Bush learned these rules from Theodore Vail and Frank Jewett who were the leaders of the most successful industrial research laboratory in history, Bell Telephone Laboratories. Using these four rules, deemed the Bush-Vail rules by Bahcall, innovations like the transistor, radar, solar cell, foundational programming languages and the basis of digital photography were developed.
The overall goal of the rules is ensuring that early developments are protected from cancellation while undergoing early iterative prototyping when the first design obstacles are encountered. The rules also account for the fact that the problem solving and thinking necessary for new development is different than what is necessary for efficient updates to steady growth franchise solutions. These rules — applied to the Defense Department’s procurement process — have four main concepts.
Process managers must separate the development processes of franchise solution improvements and the early stage new solutions. These new processes will inevitably be covered in “warts” that need to be solved with fast user feedback loops and top-level protection from senior leaders.
Also, tailor the evaluation methods and organizational structures to the phase of development. Focusing on efficiency systems like Six Sigma and Total Quality Management might help improve projects focused on the upkeep of franchise weapon systems, but they will suffocate the early development projects which will be producing the next generation of innovations.
Next, organizations must focus on managing the transfer of early development capabilities to the operational environment. New organizational emphasis must be placed on the touch point between scientists and private companies exploring the new breakthroughs and soldiers in the field or prime contractors assembling existing capabilities.
Bahcall reiterates that a flawed transfer from developers to field units should not be the only focus. Information transfer in the other direction is equally important. No product works perfectly the first time. If feedback from the field units is ignored by developers, initial enthusiasm can rapidly fade and a promising program will be dropped.
Early aircraft radar, for example, was practically useless; pilots ignored it. To solve this problem Bush made sure that pilots went back to the scientists and developers and explained why they were not using it. The reason had nothing to do with the technology: pilots in the heat of battle did not have time to fiddle with the complicated switches on the early radar boxes. The user interface was lousy. Scientists and developers quickly created a custom display technology now familiar as a sweeping line and moving dots. Radar then revolutionized the way battles were fought.
Leaders must instill a system mindset and not focus on just outcomes of the procurement process. They must analyze how the process went and improve the processes utilized to achieve results. This is easier said than done but should be instilled as a mindset for all members of organizations responsible for ensuring the right solutions are being developed and correctly implemented. Bahcall points out that the principle applies very broadly to the process. It is easy for an organization to analyze why a new solution did not work. Possibly it was determined the sustainment plan was inadequate or maybe the initial training plan was ineffective. That is an outcome mindset.
The organization will gain much more from analyzing the process by which they arrived at a decision. Identify what went wrong with the process and how to ensure those mistakes will not happen again. That is the systems mindset. Failures are guaranteed and setbacks when procuring and implementing new solutions will occur, but leadership must make sure members of the organization are incentivized to analyze and own the effort to fix the process.
Development organizations must invest time and money in open innovation. Bahcall emphasizes the importance of growing the practice of open innovation. In open innovation, the Defense Department and developers jointly develop new ideas, technologies and strategies to solve existing problems. This already occurs with well-defined and fully fleshed out franchise solutions, but the major benefits of this process would be seen with the new early stage solutions.
Sharing unfinished solutions with both existing contractors and new commercial industry partners will allow for faster feedback and easier participation by new developers. Bachall points out that open innovation allows for developers to decrease their risk in engaging in early-stage development projects with the military.
These four rules should be the foundation of both how new capabilities are managed and design processes can be updated to improve the success rate of early stage development capabilities.
The military cannot wait for armed conflict to test and iterate designs like commercial developers who can use their existing markets to test their solutions and get rapid feedback from customers. That is why implementing these process changes and the concepts described in the Bush-Vail rules are so essential.
The threat to current capabilities is present and growing at a rapid pace. The time for implementing these changes is now — before any capability gaps become too large or the outside developers that will be needed to create the needed solutions leave the industry to engage less risky early stage development environments.
Leadership, persistence and smart organizational decisions will be the essential aspects for implementing and sustaining these necessary changes.
Tom Maddux is a consultant at Systems Evolution Inc. (SEI) and was an officer in the Army Engineer Corps for eight years.