The Pentagon is making highly visible and badly needed progress on innovation, as shown by things like the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act’s emphasis on software reform. And yet critics rightly highlight Pentagon structural flaws as impediments to deeper transformation. Evidence that we are innovating on the fringes while ignoring deep obstacles includes our enduring inability to define a military-innovation career path. Given these parallel trends—making visible gains while continuing to be encumbered by invisible constraints—we must challenge the Pentagon’s antiquated models for driving change.
Part of this disconnect stems from the inherent limitations of enterprise-level efforts. As Army Futures Command grapples with massive weapons programs, and Pentagon technologists steward the $10 billion Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure contract, those personnel cannot simultaneously tackle other capability gaps, like creating an enterprise-level software development pipeline. Since this enterprise-level model confines modernization efforts to small pockets of defense talent, like Army Futures Command’s cross-functional teams, these gaps linger on, large enough to inhibit daily operations, but too small to justify assigning overburdened personnel.
Instead of accepting the status quo, the national-security community must catch up with private-sector practices, using new methods of empowering underutilized elements of the national-security ecosystem to achieve immediate progress. This can be achieved by combining elements of the sharing economy, the gig economy, and asset-based community development with leaders in tactical formations (those assigned at the brigade level and below) through an interagency platform. This platform can match existing defense-innovation personnel to teams that need them, using Defense Innovation Board talent recommendations in a way that minimizes administrative delays and opportunity costs.
A decentralized approach to innovation achieves what enterprise-level efforts cannot because of their scale and exposure to diverse challenges, creating new opportunities for crowdsourcing innovation ideas and unleashing more creativity than any central office could generate. Further, investing in grassroots efforts trains junior personnel while generating combat capabilities, offering substantially more innovation with a dynamic like that of venture capitalists investing in dozens of startups in search of disruptive game-changers. A workforce of tactical leaders empowered to “fail fast” with lean-startup methods can distill problems into prototypes for enterprise-level investment, buying down risk for defense leaders while accelerating the fielding of critical operational capabilities.
Why Existing Models are Insufficient
The way the Pentagon pursues innovation needs to be challenged. DoD will struggle to successfully innovate if it does not break down barriers to internal cooperation; without change, disparate parts of the defense innovation ecosystem lack a common situational awareness, resulting in a stream of redundant efforts. While each service has unique use cases, creating disconnected siloes dilutes critical digital and innovation talent, reducing the likelihood that teams can create sustainable solutions. When this tendency is unchecked, leaders fracture the talent needed to meet national security objectives, subordinating strategic goals to internal agendas and ultimately making ongoing organizational dynamics a national-security risk.
The consequences of not challenging these dynamics can be better understood by looking at a different landscape—that of veteran-oriented nonprofits. Over fifty thousand veterans’ service organizations form a “sea of goodwill,” according to Center for a New American Security research. As these organizations oversaturate the market of veterans’ needs, they create an overly complex network whose scale makes effective navigation almost impossible, preventing optimal matching of end-user needs to providers. Further, nonprofits compete for donations, attention, and relevance. Absent a shift in underlying incentives, the result echoes game theory’s stag hunt, where the level of cooperation between groups enables either mediocre individual outcomes or great collective results.
In a similar way, if every unit pursues innovation in isolation, or each problem set launches a disconnected organization or Pentagon office, it erodes the probability of success for both those new organizations and the broader ecosystem. At present, overcoming these challenges requires visionary leaders and herculean efforts, making longevity contingent on individual personalities.
Growing past this stage requires changing the underlying dynamics with new mechanisms that allow personnel to collaborate at the speed of relevance, becoming more efficient in their use of existing resources. Further, tracking the emerging trends and interactions between innovators and supporting units, and best practices for personnel management, provides a rich data set for leaders redesigning modern talent structures.
Breaking with Tradition
In 2018, Uber grew to a $76 billion valuation without a taxi fleet. Airbnb grew to $38 billion without owning a physical hospitality chain. These companies’ value stems from their ability to match consumer demand with underutilized market supply, challenging their sectors’ traditional business models. This pivot from large capital outlays for depreciating infrastructure let them harness a diverse network of individual providers and match consumer preferences in real time, while avoiding downside risk.
The sharing economy has unleashed tremendous business growth and has profound potential for public-sector value creation. Specifically, sharing-economy principles can let the military bypass the resource-intensive process of forming new organizations for each capability need by better using existing resources. In non-commercial environments, sharing economy principles can be leveraged for sustainable growth as they have been in asset-based community development, where parties share existing surplus assets, creating synergistic value for the community and minimizing additional capital costs for individuals.
This method is leveraged when soldiers from one unit take part in a marksmanship qualification event on a range run by another. Setting up a rifle range requires layers of logistics, from requesting ammunition and reserving land to providing medical support. But once these arrangements are made, sending additional soldiers incurs only marginal costs. Therefore, units often trade resources from range time to medical coverage, creating a goodwill network. While this approach is often applied to meet common training requirements, it has not been applied at scale for innovation.
Asset-based community development’s abstract potential becomes tangible when combined with gig-economy tools. For example, gig platforms like Upwork or Taskrabbit provide marketplaces where individuals can offer or request services. This fluid labor market minimizes operating and infrastructure costs by tailoring employment duration to immediate needs.
A DoD-wide platform, administered by a joint office like the Defense Innovation Board, would allow military leaders to leverage these models to connect real-time innovation opportunities and needs. At present, no platform exists to create the shared awareness needed to improve resource utilization, from offering extra seats in design-thinking classes to requesting assistance from software developers.
The need for enhanced digital talent management practices was central to the Defense Innovation Board’s “Workforce Now” recommendation, especially the suggestion to create a Digital Innovation Talent Management program. Just as critical to creating talent-management pipelines is ensuring that talent is used well, creating the wins necessary to change organizational culture. A platform that accelerates progress toward national-security innovation objectives creates value for the entire defense ecosystem.
Users could offer or request resources in real-time, using existing assignment structures, from memorandums of agreement to short-term duty assignments, to place the right talent in front of the right challenges. This fluid structure allows technologists to advance professionally based on the scope and complexity of challenges they undertake, while offering levels of flexibility that current programs cannot provide. Further, the speed and feasibility afforded by using internal personnel exceeds what can be achieved by generating new contracts for each requirement.
Users could also discover existing communities of practice, or ongoing capability development efforts, through a current map of the defense innovation ecosystem. At present, there is no easy way for tactical leaders to identify the lead agency or proponent responsible for developing a given capability. Accordingly, individual teams must often remap the ecosystem to discover relevant partners for each project, wasting time and making progress contingent on navigating a rapidly changing network.
While creating the digital infrastructure needed to manage gigs across the joint community may take time, the underlying methods can be employed by tactical leaders immediately. This would allow leaders to see capability gaps as points of convergence for networks across the joint community, resulting in new operational capabilities while developing talent. Further, this would minimize barriers to entry for innovation, tying success to leveraging external experts instead of relying on internal expertise.
At the tactical level, shifting from a siloed to a shared mindset begins by training tactical leaders to ask better questions. For example, a common initial instinct for leaders confronting capability gaps is to ask how they can solve this problem with their organization’s existing resources. This makes sense, since military training often emphasizes the need for self-reliance and internal problem solving. A more empowering question is who else is wrestling with this same capability gap, shifting away from limited solution generation bound by internal resource constraints. This pivot not only broadens the scope of potential projects, but also shortens the time investment required for tactical leaders to see tangible outcomes by crowdsourcing across the ecosystem. This accelerates solution discovery and requires that we rewards leaders who recognize that they do not know the answer.
Tactical leaders adopting this model can begin by connecting with existing decentralized networks, like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum and the National Security Innovation Network, through unit-level ambassadors. Ideators and organizational misfits are ideal for this role—individuals whose passions lie outside institutional areas of focus and who, despite struggling with zero-defect structures or established career paths, adopt nontraditional approaches that are vital for navigating the networks around emerging technology challenges.
The Pentagon is still years away from defining career paths for military innovators, and during that period tactical commanders are positioned to shape the future by investing in these personnel. While developing nontraditional talent appears complex, these efforts are central to winning modern wars. Further, investing in their networks through skills training and innovation fellowships provides commanders with an immediate and unprecedented opportunity to match warfighter needs with under-leveraged capacity.
A Military Use Case: Ranger Regiment’s Small Drones
When 3rd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment returned from a 2017 deployment, unit leaders recognized the need to develop unmanned-systems capabilities. The special operations community had witnessed the Islamic State demonstrating the impact of commercial drones in combat operations, and US military personnel were struggling to adapt to the changing environment due to slow development and acquisition processes. I had the privilege of contributing to this effort as a member of the battalion’s innovation cell, which built a playbook for this type of innovation pilot as we developed operational capabilities.
As the battalion set out to address this challenge, key leaders identified the need to experiment with small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS). The challenge immediately facing the battalion was a lack of in-house sUAS experts and experience with rapid prototyping and additive manufacturing. Instead of developing these capabilities internally, our team turned to a two-pronged approach: empowering enlisted personnel within the command to apply their electrical engineering experience, and forging partnerships across the joint innovation ecosystem to amplify our efforts. Our strategy prioritized unleashing and empowering the team’s enlisted and officer experts to collaborate with civilian and joint counterparts. This required a decentralized style of leadership that sets conditions for success by removing hurdles and providing enablers.
Our first partner was the Defense Innovation Unit, which was exploring the intersection of emerging UAS capabilities and military needs. After gaining experience working with drones, we attended a Marine Corps’ innovation symposium and connected with the Marine Corps’ and Navy’s explosive ordnance disposal community for additive manufacturing expertise. They, in cooperation with a company that provides the Marine Corps training on additive manufacturing and rapid prototyping called Building Momentum, helped us refine prototypes, train personnel, and generate capabilities that saw operational fielding in the months that followed.
The focus on connecting with existing efforts, from Defense Innovation Unit drone teams to 3D printing with Navy experts and training contracts, allowed us to race through the innovation process at minimal cost. Since each step of the process allowed us to refine our assumptions with expert feedback, we bought down risk as we progressed, ensuring optimal alignment of time and resources to our problem statements and operational needs. This partnership allowed the battalion to not only enhance its drone capabilities, but field additive-manufacturing systems on its next deployment and experiment with lean supply chains.
A Civilian Use Case: The 101st Airborne Division and Vanderbilt University
The need to reinvent America’s national-security innovation base was central to National Security Strategy guidance and reflected by concerns from the Senate Armed Services Committee. The challenge is one of scope. America’s vast education system precludes any single office from having the bandwidth needed to manage all the relevant engagements to advance all civilian-military research goals. Fortunately, tactical leaders can address this shortfall themselves.
The 3rd Brigade, 101st Airborne Division, under Col. John Cogbill, addressed this challenge by creating a research partnership with Vanderbilt University. The partnership began exploring the applications of additive manufacturing and extended into an institutional partnership that met the interests of both parties. The key outcome from their ongoing project is not the individual capabilities it generates, but the road map it provides for network development that can scale across the military.
While creating academic partnerships may seem too far beyond what some tactical leaders perceive their roles to be, investing in these connections creates enormous value for national security. When university researchers connect to military personnel, they gain insights that helps align their work to relevant priorities (and thereby easing grant access). Military leaders gain access to capabilities, or advance dual-use research into emerging technologies. Students supporting these partnerships, through programs like Hacking 4 Defense or X-Force, offer a public service by solving military problems, while also gaining experience for future employment. In a similar manner, military personnel that liaise with research labs gain critical research skills, as evidenced by a machine-learning pilot conducted with the University of Southern California.
Since most military installations have nearby university research centers, tactical commanders can create similar partnerships, using the legal structure developed by Army Futures Command. At present, the 82nd Airborne is exploring a way to replicate this structure with North Carolina universities, and other units can help scale this across the Army. This approach also improves the relationships units have with their communities, while exposing a broader audience to the US military.
While it may be tempting to label the US military’s modernization challenges as “above the paygrade” of tactical leaders, mobilizing these personnel is critical for creating the innovation ecosystem needed to integrate a range of capabilities, from software development to artificial intelligence. Further, the 3/75 Ranger Regiment and 3/101 Airborne Division use cases highlight the impact of using existing defense-innovation talent to address capability gaps confronting operational units The transition to network-based innovation offers an exponential increase in the resources available to solve problems, while fostering the civilian-military relationships needed for today’s national-security innovation base.
This journey will require empowering tactical leaders to develop innovation visions by providing access to key resources. Pentagon-level leaders can set conditions for this by developing and maintaining a marketplace of innovation gigs—accessible to active-duty soldiers, reservists, and DoD civilians—that can leverage individuals’ expertise to execute priorities with clear accountability metrics. These innovation alliances can pass forward high-potential pilots to enterprise-level partners for funding and advanced development, creating a model that can scale immediately across the Department of Defense.
An approach to military modernization that incorporates lessons from the gig and shared economies can develop our junior leaders and create the networks and capabilities we need to maintain military dominance by making better use of existing resources. This expanded ecosystem, prioritizing collaboration to overcome scarce resource challenges, will bypass the structural impediments blocking necessary innovation, enable the widest possible range of stakeholders in developing solutions to problems, and most importantly, position the US military to solve the challenges it will confront on the modern battlefield.
Capt. James Long is an Army infantry officer, MD5 Innovation Fellow, and experienced tactical innovator. He currently serves as an operations officer with United Nations Command Security Battalion–Joint Security Area. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Adeline Witherspoon, US Army