WASHINGTON — For the Pentagon to innovate, defense officials and lawmakers have to embrace failures that ultimately sharpen the military's technological edge.
Speaking at the unveiling of the Center for a New American Security's latest defense technology report on Wednesday, CNAS chief Michèle Flournoy and Senate Armed Services Staff Director Christian Brose said it can be done.
To be clear, the idea is not for a military culture that accepts high levels of risk and failure at an operational level, Flournoy said. Instead, the Pentagon could create a subculture of risk for certain activities, like developing and adapting new technologies or creating new concepts of operation.
"In those areas, far away from the battlefield, we want to create a culture that rewards a higher tolerance for risk and experimentation and a higher tolerance for when we fail," Flournoy said.
Despite the push to infuse the Pentagon with Silicon Valley's innovation culture in recent years, the Pentagon has had a tough time embracing failure as tech startups do. Unlike startups, the Defense Department must steward taxpayer dollars and answer to lawmakers who are both charged with oversight and able to get a potent soundbite by blasting a failed program.
"I think it's there in the [armed services] committee leadership, but individual members [of Congress] have to resist the temptation to skewer some poor DoD official who comes up and testifies about why $50 million plowed into some systems—why it didn't pan out—but you paid for some very valuable learning," Flournoy said.
"Many of us have had the experience of being skewered over a failure that helps in getting to the success, though I think it will require some leadership and discipline on the Hill as well," Flournoy said.
There are some signs Congress may be willing to accept missteps. In March, House Armed Services Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, touted the 2017 defense policy bill's more agile fail-fast approach to experimentation and rapid prototyping for the Pentagon. The idea is to keep DoD from going to production with immature technologies that fail unexpectedly and expensively. "If every experiment is a success, you're not pushing very hard," Thornberry said then.
There is broader receptiveness to risk on the Hill, according to Brose, provided Defense Department leadership is willing to be more transparent and convincing with lawmakers on the front end, in explaining the risks and the potential payoffs—"the way a corporation would with its board."
"There is absolutely a willingness to take the kind of risk the report describes, as long as there's more of a portfolio approach, recognizing that some of these things are going to pan out and some aren't," Brose said. "The question for the things that don't pan out is, do they fail quickly, do they fail cheaply and do they allow you to learn something. That's a conversation I think the Hill is very willing to have."
Speaking to reporters, Brose emphasized that consultations between Pentagon officials and lawmakers on the front end would yield "a very different kind of reception if that $50 million failure materializes."
"It's not always the case that people in Congress say, 'Absolutely, go forth, and you've got our blessing,' but where that consultation and transparency doesn't occur, you find Congress much more frustrated on the back-end," Brose said.
The onus is on Defense Department leaders to ask for the support they want, he said: "They need to initiate that, and if they were ask for support in the manner I'm describing, respectful of the role of the Congress, I don't think it will be terribly contentious."