The world faces a rapidly changing environment where both the global strategic order and the technological balance between great powers are undergoing major transitions. Strategically, the United States is engaged in a peer-level, multipolar, global competition on an unprecedented scale. In particular, the rise of China will challenge America’s place in the world and must be seriously addressed. Technologically, the digital revolution delivered capabilities that revolutionized daily life while introducing a host of new and more dangerous threats.
Historically, when faced with this magnitude of change, our nation and allies prevailed due to America’s spirit and creativity, allowing us to learn and adapt quickly. Harnessing the power of entrepreneurs underpinned this creative energy, delivering disruptive technology and capability faster than our rivals. The entrepreneurial freedom to create, experiment, prototype and quickly transition ideas to reality will be critical to winning our current competition.
Unfortunately, we are off to a very slow start.
Congress and Department of Defense leadership have a critical role to play in what can only be described as a generational reform within the world’s largest bureaucracy. We must openly and honestly discuss novel and creative ideas to leverage America’s strength and compete against our adversaries’ coercion, theft and authoritarianism. These next steps will not be easy, but they will be imperative to continuing our military superiority.
Many decisive technologies — especially information technologies — offer advantages because they leverage information integration and analysis as well as coordinate key actions across the larger defense enterprise. We cannot afford to limit promising and demonstrated technologies to any one program or service; they must be deployed across the enterprise. This approach to all programs breaks down service stovepipes, enabling integration into larger and more capable systems to achieve decisive advantages. Senior leaders who sit above the trap of short-term thinking must make high-level decisions to transition emerging technologies across the “valley of death,” deployed at scale across the department.
As leaders, no amount of technological advancement eliminates the human element of our organizations. In the Department of Defense, the human resource challenge is crippling us. There are too many layers in the decision-making process and too many individuals that can slow or halt entire programs. Saying “no” or, worse, studying the program to death in fear of mistakes or failure happens all too often, many times in direct opposition to leadership’s clear signal to move forward.
Compounding this, program managers rotate in and out of programs at a pace defined by a person’s career track, independent of program milestones or accomplishments. What emerges is a system of bureaucratic stagnation and little accountability for advancing a program to the ultimate goal of system deployment. Reducing middle management, reimagining the acquisition career track and creating an incentive structure that rewards disruption would have profound cultural changes on our antiquated, industrial-era machine.
Finally, there is a clear and unique role for Department of Defense labs. In some cases, they will develop new capabilities where no private sector solution exists. More often, the labs should serve as the center for integration — not invention — of new tech into the existing warfighting systems. This challenging work, when done right, will solve many enterprise integration challenges.
Incentives are key. Rewarding the labs for quickly adopting and integrating new capabilities for the warfighter from outside the department is critical. When unclear whether the government or private sector should take the lead, appoint a neutral, third party to examine the situation and recommend the best path forward — resolving conflicts of interest, empowering the commercial sector and allowing our amazing government labs to focus on core strategic defense problems.
There is no panacea to the threats our nation faces, but we must change and adapt to neutralize would-be adversaries. We must develop, implement and scale methods to lower the barriers to doing business with the Department of Defense. We must reward leaders who engage private companies with disruptive ideas and use their technology to enhance national security.
For the last century, the United States, with our allies and partners, has presided over an unprecedented improvement in the human condition. Not everyone believes in inalienable human rights and freedom, or that the U.S. should remain the torch bearer of these gifts. Make no mistake: We are being challenged, and America’s national security innovation base is our competitive advantage. Enhancing the department and entrepreneurs’ ability to collaborate and strengthen our nation has always been one of the essential ingredients to our success, and must be so in the future.
Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Calif., is the ranking member of the House Defense Subcommittee.