WASHINGTON — Gen. Stephen “Seve” Wilson knows the enemy doesn’t sleep. As the U.S. Air Force’s vice chief of staff, he’s aware of how innovation can be stifled.

But that must change as the United States finds itself in an era of great power competition, he argues. Wilson spoke on a panel at the 2019 Defense News Conference on Sept. 4, where he discussed how the government can close the innovation gap, and how the military can improve its relationship with industry.

What is the biggest challenge to moving innovative concepts into military operations?

What I see arguably as the biggest challenge to innovation and moving it forward is urgency. And today I can’t beat that drum hard enough and loud enough about the sense of urgency that the status quo simply isn’t acceptable in the world that we live in. The good news is we know how to do this, we’ve done it before. And I’d go back to a time in our history in the early ’60s when President [John F.] Kennedy said: “We’re going to go to the moon and back.” In about eight years, we did 36 space launches. We built the biggest rockets ever known. And we did 36 launches in eight years.

Today I look at the time frame it takes us to deliver capability, and we’re nowhere on that timeline. I think we as a nation need to understand the competition and develop amongst all of us in all of our communities this sense of urgency that we’re in this competition, and the status quo is just simply not good enough.

So how do you enable that change?

I was just at in San Antonio, Texas, visiting the 33rd Network Warfare Squadron. I met a young lieutenant with these bold ideas. He went to his boss and said: “Hey, I think we’ve got this really hard problem. I think I can solve it. Give me a handful of people in a couple of days and I’ll be able to get after [it].” He came back and not once, not twice, but three times he failed. And along the way he asked for more people and time, until he didn’t fail, and he solved a really wicked hard problem.

There was a courageous lieutenant in this case and a leadership that empowered him to move forward. And then he briefed me — here’s the vice chief coming to visit, [and he says]: “Hey vice chief, here’s where I failed three times until we didn’t.” And he brought the sense of urgency. It was about building a team, a common vision. It’s really powerful, and I think it’s indicative of what we need to see across all of our forces.

We hear how advanced China is in areas of innovation. Just how advanced is it really?

I tell people that we’re the best in the world and our adversaries know it. But they’re catching up. If we don’t change, we could lose. We have to do business differently. We’re trying.

How? We hear government is not always easy to do business with.

We’re trying to lower those barriers and bring on people quicker and easier. We have some of the most impactful problems for our nation. And if we can get people in the door and expose them to the challenges and let them do what they can do, it’s hugely rewarding. We have to make it easy.

Can we make it easy where industry could come work with us, maybe even for only a few years, but [long enough] to really make a difference? How can we bring somebody in, let them work and then let them go back to industry? We both benefit from it. We have to find ways because this is about a competition for talent and good ideas. Then what do we do with it? Do we empower them and let them really work at these really hard problems? I think that’s what people really want to get after.

Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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