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Walk into the headquarters of any operational Army unit on any Army base in the United States, and you will eventually bump into something claiming to be an unprecedented effort at “innovation.”
Innovation Task Force, Innovation Cell/Hub/Bureau members will eagerly show you how they are “implementing new ideas,” “implementing disruptive technology,” and “focusing on new capabilities for the warfighter Are concentrating.” You can also meet with the Innovation Officer, who will happily describe how innovation efforts connect with commanders at all levels. These people will tell you honestly that all this innovation is “creating a culture of innovation.”
Simplicity has become the orthodoxy in the operational army. This is commendable, and every military leader should consider implementing new ideas and cutting-edge technology across all operations. But this frantic effort to impose innovation on operational and tactical units through a proliferation of separate efforts does not make them faster, more efficient, or more capable in combat. Quite the contrary: it often slows down units and drains resources from their combat missions.
The US military is in innovation overload.
“Innovation” is applied so broadly to so many different endeavors that the term no longer has much meaning. It appears that every military command has its own innovation show pony – cell, team, group or bureau working on new technology and techniques. But these local cells are not linked to a broader institution with the capacity and resources to bring these ideas into force.
To some extent, this is the point of these organizations: by breaking out of the vast military bureaucracy, military units can absorb ideas from the tactical level and move faster. However, it also isolates these elements from congressional resources and oversight.
Much of this innovation has been introduced with little purpose. Commanders build their legacies in the show, but after the credits roll, nothing progresses in research, development, procurement, or implementation for the force. What’s worse, these efforts largely come at the expense of real, important missions. For example, in 2021, the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps developed Dragon Layer, a Soldier innovation competition. Based on the network television show “Shark Tank,” the program sought new ideas from an entire group of soldiers. The purpose of Dragon’s Lair is to unlock imaginative solutions developed by soldiers at the lowest levels of command, bring them to the top of the organization, and disseminate them to every platoon. The program received significant media and organizational attention, and Army Secretary Christine Wermuth praised the initiative at the October 2021 AUSA conference.
However, after eight iterations and two years, not a single presented concept has reached the troops. The US Army and XVIII Airborne Corps have not yet implemented any of the solutions introduced in Dragon’s Lair. Every winning idea eventually ran into a brick wall of Defense Department bureaucracy. Meanwhile, the program consumed much of the time and energy of corps staff otherwise busy organizing operations.
In operational units, innovation cells and initiatives are driven and supported by service members assigned to the traditional duty post. Without a manning billet focused on new technology, executives are doubly reluctant to serve this intense focus on innovation. With limited troops and time, compromises are made, often to the detriment of the unit’s primary mission.
Meanwhile, there are organizations codified by Congress and funded and explicitly staffed for innovation, such as AFWERX and the Army’s Software Factory. These elements develop service-level solutions and maintain informal acquisition resources for new technology. Unlike operational units, these organizations maintain mechanisms to navigate complex acquisition pathways.
The urge to access emerging and evolving technology and update and modernize military systems, operations and capabilities is essential. China maintains a significant lead over the United States in this area and this gap is increasing. This summer, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute estimated that the People’s Republic of China beats the US in 37 out of 44 critical and emerging technologies. China has overtaken the rest of the world in both research and implementation.
Therefore, new ways of thinking are necessary. It is important to apply artificial intelligence, machine learning, unmanned systems and analytics at the strategic and operational levels. But without a mechanism to connect to the DoD procurement system, these efforts fall short. Military units can best serve their Soldiers by establishing clear and precise requirements consistent with the overarching goals of the DoD. Commanders must then advocate for these innovations and present these requirements to DoD through the services for procurement and implementation.
Last June, the Government Accountability Office released a report titled “DOD needs department-wide guidance on informing acquisitions”, which revealed that, due to the lack of specific acquisition directives for new technology , the US military routinely misses opportunities to gain capabilities. Match the scale and speed of the People’s Republic of China. Without such guidelines, disparate research and testing efforts across services are wasted, resources are wasted, and opportunities for implementation are missed.
The hedge strategy, backed by Shield Capital partner and former Defense Innovation Unit director Michael Brown, would allow the US military to cut into the PRC’s lead. This approach focuses on the procurement of low-cost unmanned systems and designs to complement existing manned platforms. DoD should embrace this concept. The Pentagon should then create a dotted-line relationship from the Defense Innovation Unit to the resourced innovation organizations for each service (AFWERX, SpaceWERX, NavalX, Marine Innovation Unit, and Army Futures Command). A collaborative relationship between those organizations will aid progress and prevent redundancies. Each service should also establish a mechanism to access good ideas from each service formation in AFWERX’s Spark Tank model.
All ad-hoc innovation structures between operating units should be dissolved. Top level organizations like Defense Innovation Unit and Army Software Factory should send new technologies to these same operational units for testing and refinement by soldiers in real-world environments. These operational units should serve as a testing ground for the Department of Defense by subjecting technology to extreme conditions and diverse threats.
Expanding the force to focus on innovation may build the legacy of those commanders and advance the careers of individual generals, but within the organization, it simply consumes readiness.
Over the past five years, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, and the Strategic Capabilities Office developed ways to turn research and development into programs of record, contracting mechanisms that allow technology to be purchased and delivered across the services. Warfighting units must provide these organizations with requirements that match the demands of their mission, rather than wasting time on internally-focused programs that follow specific requirements without connecting to the broader procurement process.
Shut down task forces, boards, bureaus and cells and instead focus on bringing private sector applications to the war fighters. To harness the potential of new technology and new ideas, the Army must shift from focusing on innovation at the unit level to meeting the services’ requirements for procurement.
It’s time to close the curtain on the innovation show.
–Joe Buccino is a retired Army colonel who served as director of communications for U.S. Central Command from 2021 to July 2023. He now serves as a consultant to Grave of Bulkington Media.
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