The National Defense Strategy: A Compelling Call for Defense Innovation
“Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting …Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades. We must not accept cumbersome approval chains, wasteful applications of resources in uncompetitive space, or overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change.”
At first glance, you might think these quotes were from a CEO who just took over a company facing disruption from agile startups and a changing environment. And you’d be right. But in this case the CEO is the secretary of defense. And his company has 2 million employees.
In January, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis released the 2018 National Defense Strategy. This document tells the U.S. military – the Department of Defense – what kind of adversaries they should plan to face and how they should plan to use the armed forces. The National Defense Strategy is the military’s “here’s what we’re going to do” to implement the executive branch’s National Security Strategy. The full version of the National Defense Strategy is classified; but the 10-page unclassified summary of this strategic guidance document for the U.S. Defense Department is worth a read.
Since 9/11 the U.S. military has focused on defeating non-nation states (ISIL, al-Qaeda, et al.) The new National Defense Strategy states that America needs to prepare for competition between major powers, calling out China and Russia explicitly as adversaries, (with China appearing to be the first.) Mattis said, “Our competitive advantage has eroded in every domain of warfare.”
While the National Defense Strategy recognizes the importance of new technologies, e.g. autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, the search is no longer for the holy grail of a technology offset strategy. Instead the focus is on global and rapid maneuver capabilities of smaller, dispersed units to “increase agility, speed, and resiliency … and deployment … in order to stand ready to fight and win the next conflict.” The goal is to make the military more “lethal, agile, and resilient.”
The man with a lot of fingerprints on this document is Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Shanahan came from Boeing, and his views on innovation make interesting reading.
People in government rarely make the case for taking more risk. Yet Shanahan said after the strategy was released, “Innovation is messy.” He added, “we’re going to have to get comfortable with people making mistakes.”
All of this means significant changes will be needed in the Department of Defense’s culture and policies. But now the change agents and innovation insurgents who have been fighting to innovate from the bottom up at Office of Naval Research, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Organization, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, etc., will have the support all the way to the Secretary of Defense.
This document, combined with the split of Acquisition and Logistics, (the office responsible for buying equipment for the military) from Research and Engineering, will enable the Defense Department to better connect with private industry to get technology integrated into the defense department. The last time the country mobilized private industry at scale was the Cold War.
As you read the excerpts below from the 2018 National Defense Strategy, imagine the shockwaves this would send through any large company.
“…Maintaining the Department’s technological advantage will require changes to industry culture, investment sources, and protection across the National Security Innovation Base. “
“Defense objectives include:… Continuously delivering performance with affordability and speed as we change Departmental mindset, culture, and management systems.”
“Foster a competitive mindset. To succeed in the emerging security environment, our Department and Joint Force will have to out-think, out-maneuver, out-partner, and out-innovate revisionist powers, rogue regimes, terrorists, and other threat actors. We will expand the competitive space while … reforming the Department’s business practices for greater performance and affordability.
“Cultivate workforce talent. … Cultivating a lethal, agile force requires more than just new technologies and posture changes; …it depends on the ability of our Department to integrate new capabilities, adapt warfighting approaches, and change business practices to achieve mission success. The creativity and talent of the American warfighter is our greatest enduring strength, and one we do not take for granted … A modern, agile, information-advantaged Department requires a motivated, diverse, and highly skilled civilian workforce. We will emphasize new skills and complement our current workforce with information experts, data scientists, computer programmers, and basic science researchers and engineers … The Department will also continue to explore streamlined, non-traditional pathways to bring critical skills into service, expanding access to outside expertise, and devising new public-private partnerships to work with small companies, start-ups, and universities.”
“The current bureaucratic approach, centered on exacting thoroughness and minimizing risk above all else, is proving to be increasingly unresponsive. We must transition to a culture of performance where results and accountability matter.
Deliver performance at the speed of relevance. Success no longer goes to the country that develops a new fighting technology first, but rather to the one that better integrates it and adapts its way of fighting…Current processes are not responsive to need; the Department is over-optimized for exceptional performance at the expense of providing timely decisions, policies, and capabilities to the warfighter. Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades. We must not accept cumbersome approval chains, wasteful applications of resources in uncompetitive space, or overly risk-averse thinking that impedes change. Delivering performance means we will shed outdated management practices and structures while integrating insights from business innovation.
Organize for innovation. The Department’s management structure and processes are not written in stone, they are a means to an end–empowering the warfighter with the knowledge, equipment and support systems to fight and win. Department leaders will adapt their organizational structures to best support the Joint Force. If current structures hinder substantial increases in lethality or performance, it is expected that Service Secretaries and Agency heads will consolidate, eliminate, or restructure as needed.”
Up to now, innovation within the Defense Department has been the province of a small group of insurgents, all doing heroic efforts. Now innovation at speed has become a nation’s priority. Culture change is hardest in the middle of a large organization. It will be interesting to see how each agency in the Department of Defense adapts the strategy or whether the bureaucratic middle kills it or waits it out. Time will tell whether it provides real change, but this is a great start.
Entrepreneur-turned-educator Steve Blank is credited with launching the Lean Startup movement. He’s changed how startups are built; how entrepreneurship is taught; how science is commercialized, and how companies and the government innovate. Steve is the author of The Four Steps to the Epiphany, The Startup Owner’s Manual — and his May 2013 Harvard Business Review cover story defined the Lean Startup movement. He teaches at Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley and NYU; and created the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps — now the standard for science commercialization in the United States. His Hacking for Defense class at Stanford is revolutionizing how the U.S. defense and intelligence community can deploy innovation with speed and urgency.