DoD Needs to Invest More in Innovation

An old Navy way of saying something is a dumb idea is to say, “that makes as much sense as a screen door on a submarine.” While the Navy is smart enough not to use them on submarines, the way that DoD runs its acquisitions makes about as much sense as putting a screen door on a submarine. And, it’s costing us in the taxpayer’s wallet and the country in national security. We prepare for the last war while our adversaries plan for the next conflict.

Numerous commissions, studies and papers continue to point to the stifling effects of the DoD procurement system on production, efficiency, and innovation as well as lead to bloated price tags like the F-35. The cost of one F-35 is now “only” $78 million, the next five years of development will be billion, and the lifetime cost of the program is $1.73 trillion. That is just one (albeit expensive) weapon system. That is a lot of money for a system that has not been actively in regular national security headlines or conversation (except to debate its controversial efficacy). With drones, autonomous weapons, artificial intelligence and other innovations on the battlefield, what will be its comparative value in the next conflict? 

Our adversaries have three advantages over us: 

  1. They’ve already stolen what works. The most effective way to do research is to not have to do it at all and go straight to an advanced final product. China ensures that it keeps up with the United States in the technological race, and saves billions of dollars, by stealing the results of our expensive R&D efforts.

    According to FBI Director Christopher Wray, U.S. companies have suffered “one of the largest transfers of wealth in human history.” China’s economic power strategy also includes the Belt and Road initiative – where they invest in infrastructure in developing countries. But they are doing the same thing here, as well, as China directs equity investment in cutting-edge U.S. technology start-ups.

  2. With U.S. power as the relative benchmark, Russia and China are choosing how to contest us. “[W]e should expect China and Russia to come after us with irregular-war strategies....”

    This means breadth and innovation are key for our defenses since what has worked for us before is exactly what they are going to avoid.

  3. They do not have to follow the Federal Acquisition Regulation or deal with a dizzying array of rules, regulations, policies and statutes that stifle innovation. As Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the House Armed Services recently stated, “in my view, where we need to make the Pentagon more effective: [...] our acquisition and procurement process over the last 20 years can only be described as a complete disaster.”

The cost of doing business continues to increase. Raw materials and key elements of the supply chain are still beholden to Chinese control and influence. The Defense industrial base is simultaneously dependent on China and subject to espionage. Increased requirements for cybersecurity are necessary, but they come with a price to implement. It is a worthwhile investment that shouldn’t require companies to race to the bottom on margins to win contracts, but lack the money to implement necessary defenses.

DoD has been taking innovation more seriously with investments in the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) and other programs, but has still been strategically reactive. Its approach to artificial intelligence was a response to Chinese coordinated investment and Russian President Vladimir Putin declaration that whichever country becomes the leader in artificial intelligence (AI) “will become the ruler of the world.” Can you imagine if the United States had a holistic, whole of government approach to a field of innovation? We haven’t seen that since the middle of the previous century.

In 2021, you can’t mention innovation without reflexively conjuring up Silicon Valley. And there are some good elements there to emulate for software development, it actually lags the national defense and security capabilities that already exist elsewhere in private industry. In its Five Year Plan, China plans to increase  R&D investment by 7% per year and domestically produce 70% of its core manufacturing components by 2025.

“America must reinvest in retaining our scientific and technological edge and once again lead,” said the Biden Administration. And, it begins with government procurement reform coupled with investment in domestic capabilities and innovation. This way we can replace the screen doors on the acquisition system.

About the Author

Bryson Bort is the CEO of SCYTHE.

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