With key sources of defense technology increasingly coming from the commercial sector, and Pentagon investments spread more thinly to cover a widening range of threats, the imperative now is to refocus the intent and process used to make investments in defense technology.
The Center for a New American Security, a Washington, D.C. think tank, completed an analysis that illustrates the need to sharpen our defense technology investments in ways that can more rapidly develop new capabilities. Titled “Future Foundry: A New Strategic Approach to Military-Technical Advantage,” the study deconstructs the defense industry as we know it today with an eye toward more fully tapping into the vast and growing reservoir of commercial technology. It is a blueprint to help us grow out of the Pentagon’s “arsenal” culture borne of a bygone era when military systems were major drivers of the U.S. national industrial output. Those defense industrial demands today represent a much smaller, declining and comparatively insignificant segment of the market.
Parallel phenomena have generated the urgency to rethink our approach. Foremost, America is facing a growing range of threats, from improvised explosive devices to the proliferation of ballistic missiles to cyber warfare and a growing adversarial edge in ground-based electronic warfare. Meanwhile, the velocity and volume of 21st Century technological advancement in the commercial sector ― from renewable energy sources to nanotechnology, to the vast and profound integration of communication and information technology, or wildly disruptive processes like 3-D manufacturing ― have rendered the Pentagon a net importer of technology vs. the vaunted exporter it had been for most of its existence. Left unmanaged, the inability of the Pentagon to quickly acquire and adapt a wider range of technology will yield a dominant focus on incremental improvements to existing systems at best and will block military superiority at worst.
As co-chairs of the CNAS study, we see two broad concepts to address this problem. First, the study recommends an “Optionality Strategy” in which the Pentagon prototypes and tests a much wider diverse array of technology to hedge against a greater volume of high- and low-end threats. By spreading smaller investments over a larger number of prototypes, the government can pick and choose which ones to send into limited production. Then, once these new capabilities are introduced and tested on the battlefield, the Pentagon can throttle up production.
Secondly, the study envisions the era of the “Commercial Systems Adapter,” a defense contractor which in part or in its entirety searches the world over for commercial technology with promising defense applications. It could be light on heavy manufacturing capabilities and the huge associated costs, but muscle-bound with systems integrators and engineers who can adapt or glue together capabilities to fit emerging defense requirements. The study concludes that 15 percent of the U.S. defense market today can be served by commercial technology adapted for the military and this trend is likely to grow.
The Pentagon’s modernization strategy relies heavily on networked-enabled and autonomous learning systems, cloud computing, robotics, and the state-of-the-art in cybersecurity. Yet, there is no identified path to acquire some of the world’s most exciting commercial technology. One sliver of the federal acquisition regulations creates a pathway for the Pentagon to buy bulk commercial off-the-shelf products, like mobile phones and lap-top computers. Another creates pathways for more traditional big-ticket items like aircraft and ships. The Pentagon must establish a new path of entry for commercial technology infusion to expand the unnaturally narrow and awkward points of entry that exist today. The defense industry must then exploit this new pathway and increase the volume of compelling technologies adapted for defense. Industry must also increase R&D spending, down 30 percent since 1995, to load the pipeline with next-generation capabilities.
Now is the time to find more and better ways to harness the $2 trillion in global R&D spending lying just beyond the Pentagon’s reach. It is also time for the Pentagon to incubate a larger volume of potential defense technologies to outpace an ever-growing range of threats.
Our nation enjoys technological supremacy on the battlefield and we have relied on that edge for decades. But unless we accelerate the transition to market realities, our future national security needs may be short changed and may yet become a casualty of the rapid pace of commercial technology development.
William J. Lynn is the CEO of Leonardo DRS and formerly served as the United States deputy secretary of defense. Sean O’Keefe is a professor at the Syracuse University Maxwell School and formerly served as NASA administrator and secretary of the Navy.