I pay attention to flashing lights on the road, especially after a storm. The lights’ signal disruption is near. They warn the standard rules of the road are out the window and that attentive decisions are a must.
Of the numerous calls to action outlined in the 2022 National Defense Strategy, the flashing red lights to industry blink most abruptly in the “Building Enduring Advantages” section, wherein U.S. Defense Department leadership crushes the idea the status quo will field the necessary tools for integrated deterrence.
“Our current system is too slow and too focused on acquiring systems not designed to address the most critical challenges we now face,” the document declares, affirming what most in industry already know: There is little incentive to design open systems that can rapidly incorporate cutting-edge technologies.
The proposed resolution? “The Department will instead reward rapid experimentation, acquisition, and fielding [and] will design transition pathways to divest from systems that are less relevant.”
These blinking lights are saying: “Accelerate change now, or we’ll leave you behind.” And rightly so.
To deter strategic challenges that are evolving daily, the Defense Department requires industry partners — and a broader system — that can be both disciplined and disruptive.
Consolidation in the defense industry in the 1990s dwindled the number of prime defense contractors by nearly 90% — providing efficiencies and scale, but dampening the agile, disruptive spark and energy that startups and smaller high-tech companies often provide. As a nontraditional prime about half the size of our next-largest competitor, L3Harris is a welterweight swinging among heavyweights. To lead in the ring, we are throwing unique punch combinations; we’re large enough to manage combatant commander programs like Compass Call, but display the hunger and vision to change the tanker conversation.
We call this “trusted disruption,” and to win future conflicts, our nation needs more of it. So, how do we get there?
First, let’s remember disruption can be a good thing; abrupt change delivered via a spirit of solidarity and innovation can upend slow, bureaucratic processes that restrict choices for the warfighter.
Second, the DoD must do all it can to eliminate slow requirements processes that force delayed funding cycles that all but guarantee obsolete or ineffective technology at the leading edge of battle.
Third, we industry leaders must work with the department to fuel an increase in collaboration coupled with vibrant competition that will help the most innovative minds among us leapfrog the valley of death.
These points were made clear nearly a year prior to the NDS release in the DoD’s “State of Competition within the Defense Industrial Base” report.
A whole-of-government — and intentionally disruptive — approach will be required to support more meaningful competition among major prime contractors and to overhaul a requirements process that severely lags the rate of threat evolution. This includes regulators allowing mid-tier companies to grow, both through acquisitions and mergers.
And while nothing fuels rapid adaptation quite like competition — even when DoD program managers are given rapid acquisition tools such as Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer contracts — for many it’s a hard market to navigate. As Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin aptly noted: “It’s bad enough that some companies get stuck in the valley of death. But some brilliant entrepreneurs and innovators don’t even want to try to cross it and work with us.”
The industry outlook for 2023 and beyond will include many new tech entrants sending up flares of their own, searching for partnerships with larger companies to successfully deliver their game-changing technology in time to affect force planning. Whether it’s through venture capital investments, teaming arrangements or pooling technology resources, prime contractors should be judged on whether they are driving multidomain solution delivery through partnerships with disruptive companies with cutting-edge capabilities.
Congress should likewise be judged on whether it chooses to disrupt a broken omnibus and continuing resolution cycle that severely limits new program starts and has put us years behind our global adversaries.
Intentional disruption should be a welcome goal among those earnestly pursuing a posture of integrated deterrence. The flashing lights are all around us now; a year ago, few would have predicted a war between Russia and Ukraine disrupting global energy, food and supply chains. None would have predicted Ukraine would have held its own while our industry develops and attempts to rush capabilities to support it. Hopefully in 2023, together we can disrupt the system that hinders rapid delivery of vital solutions, and we can empower the innovators ready to punch above their weight.
Christopher Kubasik is the chief executive and chair of U.S. company L3Harris Technologies.