At my swearing-in ceremony as secretary of defense, I said the Pentagon had to "think outside this five-sided box," and since taking office, opening the Defense Department to new ideas and stoking its innovative culture has been one of my top priorities.  I have made it my mission to innovate because if we are to remain the finest fighting force in the world, treading water won't get it done.  We've made important progress on multiple fronts, implementing changes I believe will serve my successors for years to come.

Innovation is all the more necessary in today's dynamic security environment.  We are currently addressing five major, unique, and rapidly evolving challenges: countering Russian aggression and coercion, especially in Europe; managing historic change in the Asia-Pacific, the most consequential region for America's future; strengthening deterrence and defensive capabilities against North Korea; checking Iranian aggression and malign influence in the Gulf; and accelerating the certain and lasting defeat of ISIL.  At the same time, the Pentagon also must prepare for challenges we can't anticipate.

Outlook 2017: Perspectives from global thought leaders

To take on these challenges and stay ahead of our competitors in an increasingly complex international landscape, DoD is changing and adapting how we invest in technology, how we fight, how we operate as an organization, and how we attract and nourish talent. 

To ensure that our military continues leading change technologically, we are pushing the envelope on research and development.  The last budget we proposed called for $72 billion in research and development in the next year alone – more than double what Apple, Intel, and Google spent last year on R&D combined. Beyond that, we've made progress in building, and in some cases rebuilding, the bridges between the Pentagon and America's technology community.  I created our Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DIUx, to connect with startups and other commercial technology firms innovating in Silicon Valley; Boston; Austin, Texas; and everywhere in between. Those DIUx outposts are already producing new ideas that will help our warfighters. We're pursuing these new initiatives while still looking to the innovative companies in our traditional defense industrial base to help us accomplish our mission as only they can. America's defense contractors will need to keep us on the cutting edge in the years ahead.

Of course, technological innovation and operational innovation go hand-in-glove.  As a result, the Defense Department is reinvigorating training across the military branches to return to full-spectrum readiness, and re-thinking how we operate to find new advantages against potential adversaries. We have fundamentally revised our core contingency plans to account for changes in potential adversaries' capabilities, to apply innovation to our operational approaches, and to better counter emerging threats such as cyberattacks.  These updated plans will ensure we have the agility and ability to win the fights we are in, the wars that could happen today, and the wars that could happen in the future.

Innovation in technology and operations are necessary, but insufficient, because at the pace today's world demands, the Defense Department can only succeed as a flexible institution that nurtures innovation in all its forms.  We cannot afford to be bureaucratic, too slow to act or risk-averse, nor to discourage thinking differently. One effort to encourage innovative thinking is the Defense Innovation Board, which I established this year. The board, led by Alphabet and Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, has already provided its first set of recommendations on how to apply America's wider innovative culture to military problems. One recommendation I've already accepted is the establishment of a chief innovation officer position to act as a senior adviser to the defense secretary on innovation.

Of course, people are the bedrock of our military superiority – that's always been the case and always will be.  While we can acquire the best technology, and employ the soundest operational and organizational concepts, we are nothing without our people.  So as our country and young citizens change from generation to generation, so must our methods for attracting and retaining the smartest, hardest working, and most talented among them.  That's why I launched the Force of the Future initiatives, to ensure that our people will always remain cutting-edge.  In total, these initiatives span the career of a uniformed service member and DoD civilian, from recruiting men and women to join, to caring for, retaining, and developing them, and then to helping successfully transition those who want to move on.

From outreach to the tech community and innovative ecosystems across the country, to operational and organizational innovation, to building the Force of the Future, the thread that connects all these efforts is that their real payoff will come down the line.  Just as I've benefitted from actions by my predecessors, I am confident the Defense Department and its future leaders will benefit from these initiatives for years to come as each ensures our military remains the strongest, most capable, most innovative force on Earth. 

Ash Carter is the US secretary of defense.

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