Defense priorities are shifting toward emerging technologies at an unprecedented pace, but still not fast enough to keep America ahead of potential adversaries. We need to hit the accelerator by drastically increasing the tech savviness of defense leaders.

The defense establishment is better at this than it used to be. We’ve seen a rapid expansion of new authorities and programs to drive tech innovation since Pentagon leaders started talking about the “third offset” in 2014. The 2021 National Defense Authorization Act continues that trend, establishing a national cyber director position, elevating the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, and calling for open-systems architecture and API usage in some key programs. But we will not keep our current military superiority through these kinds of incremental changes alone.

We need a radical shift in how the Department of Defense does business.

Any organizational transformation starts with the right leadership. This is doubly true in government, where the bureaucracy is built to maintain the status quo and avoid risk to guarantee continuity of operations and effective stewardship of taxpayer dollars. But understanding where risk and opportunity lies — in areas from cybersecurity to agile procurement — is now much more important than knowing how to manage a major, multibillion-dollar weapons system procurement.

The Biden administration and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should start by filling key acquisitions and management roles with leaders who have experience in the tech or venture sector, or have a record of disruptive innovation within the DoD itself. These people must bring both an understanding of the current tech landscape and a willingness to back the innovators under them. Without a clear, top-down mandate to disrupt the status quo, nothing will change.

The new administration should also make it a priority to heed the advice of defense and technology advisory boards. Oftentimes leaders who have spent their careers in tech, venture, and private research and development may be unsuited for full-time government positions, yet bring invaluable perspective and expertise. The Biden administration should continue and accelerate the work already being done to implement the Defense Innovation Board’s recommendations for training and software acquisition and the Cyberspace Solarium Commission’s recommendations for security.

More than identifying useful, new technologies, defense leaders must transform culture and skills at all levels of the DoD to operationalize tech innovation. The hardest part of driving change in a big organization is not recognizing the end goal nor setting policies to get there, but rather operationalizing it at all levels across the millions of active-duty, civilian and contractor personnel doing the day-to-day work. This will take massive investments in training the existing workforce, strengthening the pathways between defense and the national tech and venture ecosystems, and changing processes to enable and incentivize new ways of doing business.

The DoD needs to make aggressive investments in the near term. In the near term, defense leaders should:

  • Train all DoD personnel on emerging technology. The need for these types of knowledge across the DoD simply can’t be met by existing resources, which is why Dcode has worked with the Defense Acquisition University, AFWERX and others to equip defense leaders to innovate like a startup, evaluate tech like an investor and understand the emerging tech landscape.
  • Provide advanced training and specialization on commercial tech procurement and software procurement for contracting and information security personnel. Today’s purchases are best-value decisions that require true subject matter expertise to scope problem sets, assess the best solutions and bring those solutions in. In contracting, the practice of rating bids based on meeting rigid requirements and competing on price alone simply does not work. In security, moving from compliance-based to risk-based approaches will require a massive influx of technical talent and training.
  • Expand, promote and incentivize industry exchange programs both ways: pulling in private sector talent, and sending the DoD’s talent on loan to the tech and venture industry.
  • Fund and empower tech innovation hubs. Some of the biggest successes in recent years have come from newer innovation hubs and centers of excellence that are proliferating across agencies and programs. Efforts like these should be encouraged to both replicate best practices from existing hubs that have seen success, seeded with funding to try new things, and matured into programs of record as their business model proves out. One need only look at the significant measurable outcomes that the Defense Innovation Unit and AFWERX have driven in recent years, with a relatively minimal amount of resources, to see that they are only just beginning to scratch the surface. Driving internal disruption at scale will take an exponential increase in the number of people and amount of funding.

The future of defense innovation is bright, and the community of passionate leaders inside and outside of the government working to move things forward is incredibly inspiring. I’m hopeful the Biden administration and new Congress will see 2021 as the year to make ambitious investments for the future.

Nate Ashton is managing director for public policy at Dcode. He is also interim executive director of The Alliance for Commercial Technology in Government.

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