war on the rocks

Innovation Warfare: Technology Domain Awareness and America’s Military Edge

On December 21, 2013, a small Japanese robotics start-up called Schaft claimed top honors at the DARPA Robotics Challenge. With minimal funding, team Schaft’s robot was the only performer to successfully complete all of the challenge events and beat robots built by companies like Boston Dynamics, who delivered a competing system through a $10.8 million contract from DARPA. In 2013, Google purchased Schaft and six other robotics companies as part of a new broad scale robotics initiative.

In May 2011, D-Wave Systems, a start-up spun out of the University of British Columbia, announced they had created the world’s first quantum computer. The current generation D-Wave Two is benchmarked to solve some computational problems 3,600 times faster than conventional computers. A complete D-Wave Two system can be purchased for $10-15 million.

At the 2014 International Manufacturing Technology Show in Chicago, Local Motors, a company that uses advanced manufacturing techniques and open collaboration to drive rapid product innovations, unveiled the world’s first 3-D printed vehicle. Over a 44-hour period on the floor of the trade show, Local Motors “printed” and assembled an entire vehicle, showing how direct digital manufacturing can quickly and cost effectively produce complex systems.

The genie is out of the bottle. Today, global commercial markets increasingly set the pace for advanced technology innovation. Enter Technology Domain Awareness (TDA) – a defense innovation concept that uses knowledge of the technology commons (i.e. the place where non-defense R&D intersects with defense applications) to incorporate the high tech outputs of the commercial marketplace. In the first of a series of three articles on this topic, we explored the underlying factors and goals of the TDA mission to develop a robust defense innovation base that cooperatively aligns the non-defense R&D marketplace with emerging defense capability needs. In this second article, we turn our attention to how TDA is accomplished.

An abundance of R&D capital, market-driven incentives, and efficient flows of information between technology producers and technology consumers are underwriting a global innovation engine that operates independently of traditional defense markets. This innovation marketplace does not function by technology suppliers picking “winners” so much as by letting the market determine those technologies and “killer apps” that will survive and thrive. In this context, the technological edge favors those organizations with the strategic flexibility to leverage the widest number of technology options and rapidly exploit the applications of these technologies that generate the most value. This model of competition has broad implications for future conflict scenarios where “leveraging to win” becomes just as important as “building to win.”

In the war for the global technology commons, the winners will be those militaries that can best adapt to rapid, disruptive technological change. As such, DOD must develop internal mechanisms to successfully capitalize on the dynamics governing the commercial marketplace in order to secure and maintain the military-technology initiative. Consistent with this objective, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, Frank Kendall, recently announced the third installment of DOD’s Better Buying Power (BBP 3.0) initiative, which focuses on delivering dominant capabilities through technical excellence and innovation. Among the prominent themes reflected in BBP 3.0 are removing barriers to commercial technology utilization, increasing the use of prototyping and experimentation, and improving technology search and outreach in global markets.

To achieve the ambitious goals of BBP 3.0, DOD needs an innovation business processes to (1) source products and technologies for near-term prototyping applications, (2) identify strategic co-investment opportunities where DOD can partner with academia and the global R&D marketplace, and (3) optimize long-term defense technology priorities and investments. We call this business process Technology Domain Awareness, and it represents an information-based framework that connects technology stakeholders in DOD, academia, and industry; informs defense technology decision-making; and builds cost effective defense capabilities.

Connect. In 2004, U.S. forces in Iraq began seeing signs of active efforts by Iraqi insurgents to modify their mortar and rocket tactics to evade detection by coalition Firefinder radars deployed in and around military installations. In one such attack on December 22, 2004 at a military base outside of Mosul, 22 U.S. and coalition personnel were killed and 66 injured, representing one of the highest single-day American casualty totals of the entire Iraq conflict. Based on requests for support from the field, the Army Research Development and Engineering Command deployed members of their Field Assistance in Science and Technology team to investigate the problem first-hand. The FAST team’s analysis in turn fueled a rapid reaction development effort at the Army Research Laboratory (ARL). Lacking the internal funding required to build and deploy a prototype countermeasure, ARL turned to the Army Technical Operations Support Activity for financial and operational resources. This collaboration between the field, the lab, and the resourcing agency led to the development of the Unattended Transient Acoustic MASINT System, a hostile fire geolocation system developed in fewer than 90 days from concept to implementation.

As the above example highlights, technological innovation requires a set of building blocks that must be successfully connected. These building blocks include people, needs, technologies, applications, capital, and a variety of enabling resources ranging from contract vehicles to specialized infrastructure. Social-scale networks like LinkedIn, Kickstarter, and Alibaba and open collaboration platforms like Innocentive and Local Motors have demonstrated the impact of extended connectivity on improving business efficiency and product innovation. In the context of defense, efforts like the Army Rapid Equipping Force’s Co-Create initiative have likewise validated the utility of self-forming communities of interest for solving military problems.

Available tools that can facilitate the desired levels of engagement between DOD stakeholders and their counterparts in academia and industry include both real world events and complementary online services. Real world activities like the Naval Special Warfare Group 2’s annual Trident Specter exercise provide a model for connecting diverse technology options with emerging operational needs in a collaborative, experimental environment. Scaling DOD-industry connectivity also requires Internet-enabled social networking tools that operate both inside and outside the DOD “firewall.” These tools should reach beyond conventional DOD communities of interest to foster persistent and diverse interactions with the defense innovation base. Such interactions, however, ultimately depend on appropriate outreach and incentive mechanisms to motivate participation by academia and industry. Communicating the value proposition of DOD engagement, lowering barriers to participation, and providing mechanisms for public-private co-investment opportunities are therefore all vital to the TDA idea.

Inform. Like most complex organizations, DOD is often challenged to connect the outputs of product innovation with corporate processes that enable such outputs to be scaled. Low transition rates for R&D technologies to formal sustainment paths limit DOD’s innovation return on investment. To enhance ROI, efforts must be made to more explicitly align prototypes with the DOD product portfolios managed by the military services, the U.S. Special Operations Command, and various DOD agencies. This approach involves creating a robust flow of information between defense prototyping activities and corresponding requirements, acquisition, and budgeting processes.

Improving technology ROI also means capitalizing on the information value associated with prototyping efforts – a concept that business strategist Greg Galle refers to as Learning From Investment. This idea forms the basis of the iterative development cycles underwriting product innovation in the commercial high tech world, where learning is synonymous with doing. TDA nominally provides the context for defense innovation stakeholders to self-organize and execute prototyping efforts, but the core objective is to leverage these transactions to create a learning context for technology experimentation. As defense technology stakeholders interact and build in the furtherance of specific project objectives, empirical data is generated. Accumulated knowledge developed from this data can then be used to optimize both follow-on prototyping efforts and strategic, DOD-wide technology priorities and investments.

Facilitating the collection, organization, and dissemination of transactional knowledge calls for a novel data model that relates technology information to decision making. This function is analogous to the intelligence community’s approach to collection management, where intelligence is developed in a manner that conforms to the essential elements of information (EEI) associated with acquisition, operational, and policy activities. One potentially promising approach consistent with the needs of TDA involves the use of scalable online tools that facilitate the organization of technology information around the building blocks (i.e. people, needs, technologies, applications, capital, and other resources) necessary for defense product innovation.

Build. We learn by doing. Similarly, building is an antecedent to innovation. Mr. Kendall recently underscored the need for DOD to increase the use of prototyping and experimentation to maintain DOD’s military-technology edge. In this context, prototyping acts as a bridge between technologies and military applications. The products and information derived from prototype development and experimentation are a critical resource for augmenting the conventional, industrial-scale defense acquisition system; however, significant barriers to entry limit the ability of the most promising commercial and university-derived R&D to penetrate DOD.

Insofar as DOD experimentation depends on a healthy supply of new technologies, the TDA concept is based on the employment of information and services that reduce or eliminate transactional barriers to entry. A number of existing DOD authorities can be leveraged in support of this objective, including (1) multiple-task Section 845 Other Transaction Agreements that incorporate simplified commercial contracting standards, (2) public-private partnerships and communities of practice that promote DOD-industry engagement and co-investment, and (3) common use infrastructure available to qualifying firms for defense prototype development. Incentivizing the commercial market to build with the needs of defense in mind, however, involves more than addressing transactional barriers. It also means meeting – at least in part – the R&D capital requirements of start-ups and established firms. As such, creative co-investment approaches that expand on the Central Intelligence Agency’s successful In-Q-Tel model and explicitly align non-dilutive, risk-taking public financing with venture capital investments are needed. The public-private co-investment approach allows DOD to distribute risk by spreading limited R&D funding over a larger number of opportunities and offset costs by leveraging private capital to a much fuller extent.

Technology Domain Awareness. The global R&D marketplace represents both an unprecedented threat and an unprecedented opportunity to the DOD. Defense-relevant technology innovations from commercial industry and the academic research community are a viable means to offset defense acquisition costs, distribute technology-related risk, and accelerate innovation. These same technologies, however, are also available to nations, organizations, and individuals antagonistic to U.S. interests. In order for the U.S. to maintain the military-technology initiative in this environment, DOD should aggressively pursue the development and deployment of business processes and tools optimized to exploit the commercial technology environment ahead of the threat.

TDA involves the creation of new and expanded channels for defense-relevant collaborative innovation incorporating the extended global, commercial, and academic R&D communities. Through information sharing and targeted services, the TDA approach promotes the transactions necessary for (1) advanced technology prototyping and experimentation and (2) development of the knowledge that will enable the U.S. to maintain and extend its decisive military-technology edge.


Adam Jay Harrison is Director of the Center for Smart Defense at West Virginia University. He is former Director of the Department of Defense Technical Operations Support Activity and founder of Mav6, an Inc. 500 aerospace and defense technology company.

Jawad Rachami is the Founder and CEO of Cylitix LLC, specializing in the application of human-centered design and collaborative innovation models to technology development programs. Jawad has over 16 years of experience in the execution and management of federal programs.

Christopher Zember is Director of the Department of Defense’s Information Analysis Centers, which annually conducts over $1.5 billion in technology-centered research and analysis.  His prior positions include work in national security policy, Defense planning, and intelligence analysis, with posts both inside and outside government, in the U.S. and abroad.


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