Recent defense budget hearings saw a series of heated exchanges between lawmakers and Department of Defense leaders over plans to reach a 355-ship Navy by 2030. This political debate over the path to 355 is focused on precisely the wrong metric. It is a distraction from the difficult but urgent and necessary trade-offs the United States must make to prepare for a far more contested and lethal future security environment.

In a world where defense budgets will plateau or shrink, the question Congress and the department should be asking is not how will we reach 355 ships or whether this number should be lower or higher, but rather what is the right mix of legacy platforms and emerging capabilities needed to deter, and if necessary, defeat a great power adversary.

Answering this question will require that the department significantly expand and accelerate experimentation and prototyping of critical emerging technologies — and that Congress provide it with the funds and flexibility to do so. Unfortunately, Congress and the DoD find themselves in a Catch-22 — many members want more clarity before they fund experimental systems, while the department needs a certain number of these systems to experiment with to refine the requirements and develop a compelling case for Congress to fund the capability long-term. If left unchecked, this stalemate will stifle the development of essential capabilities, rapidly eroding our military advantage over key competitors.

Take the case of unmanned surface vessels. Last year, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense attempted to cut one of the two large USVs from the fiscal 2020 budget — saying they didn’t want to waste money on a system for which the Navy did not yet have a role. And while the second vessel was ultimately reinstated, it came with a nearly $100 million cut to the LUSV budget — down to $273 million — and a provision that forbids the Navy from integrating vertical launch systems for missiles on the platform.

Unmanned systems — on the surface, in the air and undersea — will ultimately be critical to countering future adversaries and realizing the Navy-Marine Corps vision of a more integrated, distributed force. One could envision using USVs for resupply and situational awareness, as part of a hybrid force of manned and unmanned systems, and even as decoys and local nodes in a distributed command, control and communications network. These systems will be able to operate in areas too lethal for large capital ships or autonomously when communications or GPS are jammed. This year’s request for two LUSVs at $239 million is still woefully insufficient to rapidly test and field this potential game-changing technology at scale.

The unmanned submarine-hunting surface drone Sea Hunter gets underway on the Williammette River in Portland, Ore. Sea Hunter, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, represents an enormous technological leap for unmanned maritime systems. (John Williams/U.S. Navy)
The unmanned submarine-hunting surface drone Sea Hunter gets underway on the Williammette River in Portland, Ore. Sea Hunter, developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, represents an enormous technological leap for unmanned maritime systems. (John Williams/U.S. Navy)

Breaking this logjam to ensure the U.S. has the capabilities it needs in an operationally relevant time frame will require building greater transparency and trust between the department and Congress. First, the department should ramp up its efforts to develop joint operational concepts to drive more rapid fielding of game-changing technologies. Greater alignment between the services on concepts, planning and budgeting will give Congress greater confidence and clarity about the DoD’s commitment to this new strategic direction.

Second, the department should ensure that it is briefing members early and throughout the process of developing new operational concepts to build buy-in.

Third, the services should invite members of Congress to observe war games and experiments. This will give members insight into the analytical underpinnings behind critical investment decisions.

Finally, each service chief should recommend where to divest in order to reinvest in new capabilities and where to accept or manage risk in a given domain or geography. These recommendations can provide strategic direction and some amount of top cover for the politically difficult divestment decisions that will be necessary to reorient the force and keep pace with our competitors.

While the department needs to do more to bring Congress along, ultimately defense appropriators and authorizers must be willing to accept more risk in the short term and allow the services to acquire more experimental prototypes without precisely defining the requirements upfront. Congress and the department must work together to build a more agile and risk-tolerant approach to developing emerging technologies that allows for iterative feedback between war fighters and engineers as well as robust field experimentation to refine requirements before moving to full-scale production.

The United States cannot continue to use the same acquisition and development approach it uses for an aircraft carrier, understandably optimized to avoid large cost and schedule overruns, to develop new technologies and capabilities. Our current risk-averse system simply cannot deliver the necessary disruption at speed and scale. If we don’t accept more risk now, we will face the far greater risk of falling behind our adversaries in the future.

Michèle A. Flournoy is a co-founder and managing partner of the strategic advisory firm WestExec Advisors. She served as U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy from 2009-2012. Gabrielle Chefitz is a senior associate at WestExec Advisors.