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The Pentagon must make a culture shift to embrace innovation

The Air Force and DARPA conducted a test of the Hypersonic Air-breathing Weapon Concept, or HAWC, last month they said was successful. The test was not announced for about two weeks to avoid worsening tensions with Russia. (DARPA)

People are the bedrock of our nation’s military and create the culture that is foundational for innovation. But thus far, our Department of Defense is falling short of building an organization where people are encouraged to lead, make mistakes as they learn, challenge outdated thinking and pursue new creative initiatives.

That sort of culture is essential to success on the battlefield. And a culture of innovation is fundamental to acquiring, adopting and scaling new technologies that will give our men and women in uniform the advantage they deserve over our competitors.

Beginning in 2015, the House and Senate Armed Services committees made acquisition reform the highest priority. Many new provisions were passed into law to help get the best technology our nation can produce into the hands of the warfighter as soon as possible. While there are pockets in DOD using some of those authorities to drive modernization, there are still pervasive cultural barriers inhibiting the agility and private-public sector collaboration we need.

One of America’s key advantages in the fight against our adversaries is our ecosystem of innovation within government and more widely in the private sector and academia. Without an adaptable, collaborative culture, it is difficult to harness all of the nation’s innovation.

In certain fields, the private sector is far surpassing the government in developing new technologies. We will lose partners quickly if DOD’s culture is not open to working with both traditional and non-traditional suppliers. When the government makes it difficult, costly and unwelcoming in some cases to support our national security, the partners we need to protect the country will point their business resources in a different direction.

An innovative culture is fueled by strong leadership that breeds collaboration and autonomy, embracing failure and learning, and funding curiosity and new ideas. Some organizations have been created to follow those practices, such as the Defense Innovation Unit, AFWERX and the Defense Digital Service. But there are limits to their growth and influence within the broader acquisition system.

We need a culture of collaboration that opens new pathways to work with the private sector, relooks at our approach to interactions with outside organizations and reframes the department as open to sharing research and information rather than one that is uncooperative both internally and externally. Viewing failure and the learning that comes from it as a good thing is crucial in an organization that rapidly innovates.

Hypersonic missiles are a good example of how embracing failure could have helped speed up development and keep up with our adversaries racing to develop this definitive platform. The U.S. had previously halted hypersonic testing after several failures. Meanwhile, both China and Russia ramped up their testing.

National security leaders in Washington were surprised when news emerged that China conducted hypersonic weapons tests with technology the United States didn’t appear to have — and of the type that could render current U.S. missile defense systems obsolete. Now, the U.S. is pouring additional resources against the problem, but we are still playing catchup.

Lastly, making funds available to support an innovative culture is crucial to success. Budgetary restrictions and regulations hamper DOD’s ability to work with outside partners and foster a culture where the workforce is encouraged to build and adopt new technologies and practices.

I hope the Planning, Programming, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) process reform commission makes actionable recommendations that will encourage such practices. In the meantime, Congress can play a crucial role in providing more flexible funding that encourages moving quickly to adapt and to get capability into the hands of the warfighters.

A new culture is not created just by passing a new law or new policy pronouncements. It comes from leadership, incentives and inspiration. Congress, the administration and even the media play a role. To truly innovate and remain at the forefront of global competition, we must work together to drive collaboration and build agile organizations that embrace risk. The culture we create will mean the difference in success and failure and ultimately the security of our nation.

This article originally appeared in Defense News.


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