No Time to Waste: The Pentagon Needs an Innovation Overhaul

For more than a decade, the Department of Defense (DoD) has emphasized the need to deploy innovative commercial capabilities to the battlefield. But its efforts in this direction have not yet yielded many concrete results. Increasingly, DoD officials attribute these failures to the so-called “valley of death,” or the gap between when a technology is developed and when it is widely deployed. Undersecretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks recently called Death Valley “one of our biggest problems,” and countless industry and government leaders have called on the DoD to better guide companies through this transition.

But removing Death Valley won’t magically produce technological superiority. Rather than treating it as an obstacle to be conquered, the department should embrace the valley of death and use it as an intentional tool to weed out mediocre ideas.

Innovation cannot happen without failure. For every brilliant invention, there are dozens, hundreds, even thousands of failed efforts. This idea that most ideas fail is embedded in the funding strategies of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation, and other federal research agencies: support many different projects in the hope that some will succeed. The venture capital industry works on the same model.

The process of adapting commercial technologies to the battlefield is no different. Many tech companies that win contracts from the Defense Innovation Unit, AFWERX, and other Pentagon innovation offices will never produce a viable prototype. Others may develop working solutions that, for whatever reason, the DoD is not sufficiently interested in operating the system. Capability may not be scalable. Maybe it is fragile or easily hacked. Maybe it just doesn’t provide the expected force multiplier needed for the battlefield. Either way, if a particular technology is useless or unwanted, it shouldn’t emerge from the valley of death.

But these types of decisions require clarity of thought from the DoD. They require the department to know the end state that is worth funding and what operational problems it is actually willing to pay to solve – this requires leaders to be in charge of the process, not the other way around.

In an ideal world, the DoD would be intentional about the technologies it decides to push through. Managers would direct innovation capabilities in large procurement programs and leave the valley of death filled with the dried, bleached bones of mediocre ideas. But the reality is that today the valley is also littered with remnants of good ideas that were never saved. This is where one of the department’s biggest innovation challenges lies. The problem isn’t the valley of death itself, but rather the fact that leaders don’t really know what their priorities are – they don’t know which abilities they should save and which should be left for dead. We keep talking about requirements, which are mostly weapon specs, saying things like “how fast does my missile go?” and “we have operations plans to sequence fantastic operations”. But we don’t talk about the problem we’re trying to solve, and we don’t align money with solving that problem, whether it’s a hard or soft solution.

This lack of clarity is not the fault of any particular office or official; The DoD innovation ecosystem is structured in a way that makes transitioning technologies from the world of research and engineering (R&E) to the battlefield incredibly difficult, virtually accidental. Offices and innovation labs are scattered across disparate agencies and offices with little visibility into each other’s efforts. Additionally, because innovation offices live within the R&E chain of command, their activities are effectively decoupled from the requirements, budget, and procurement processes that drive the development of core platforms and systems.

As it stands, the Army’s current approach to engaging with small vendors is more akin to “innovation tourismthan a legitimate strategy for introducing new technologies into the department. Offices are establishing outposts in Silicon Valley and other national innovation hubs, sampling local cuisine and doling out a few small contracts without providing a meaningful path to major recording programs. This uncoordinated system ultimately leads to good ideas getting stuck in supply limbo and bad ideas being supported longer than they should be. Such an approach does not lead to lasting relationships with non-traditional vendors, nor does it incentivize fledgling startups to engage with the DoD. Every business, no matter how viable, is left to wander blindly through the valley of death with no end in sight.

For years, leaders across the department have suggested that the problem of technology transition can be solved by throw more money at it. In its 2023 budget request, the DoD requested $100 million to create a Death Valley “bridging fund”. But while more funding will allow offices to increase the number and size of their contracts, these efforts must address the organizational issues that prevent the resulting technologies from making their way onto the battlefield to be effective.

To help successful companies navigate the valley of death and ensure that their failing counterparts are notified quickly with as little wasted time as possible, the department needs to be more deliberate in its engagements. Leaders need to clearly define the goals of various innovation activities and increase transparency across the ecosystem. Innovation offices and sourcing offices need to work hand-in-hand, sharing information about new vendor capabilities and creating safe spaces for them to collaborate with established contractors. The service should be a discerning customer, making it clear what capabilities they will buy and what they are willing to shy away from. Budgeting and requirements processes should accommodate software capabilities, more disposable systems, and procurement efforts that don’t stand out as baseline programs. The process can no longer be allowed to dictate departmental priorities—departmental priorities must drive the process.

To be clear, this is not a quick fix or a silver bullet. But this problem has been growing steadily for decades, and it’s too big for a political appointee to solve in his first two years on the job or for a strong general or admiral in a single rotation. It cannot be solved by creating news sites. Restructuring the military innovation ecosystem and the incentives that drive it will require experimentation. This will require leaders who are empowered to pursue new ideas and who will not be punished if these efforts fail. It will take courage to push back against Congress and the Government Accountability Office and their obsession with predicting an unchanging future seven years from now in this dynamic new landscape of threats and technologies. The department will have to be a better client and recognize the economic realities of the startups it hires. Leaders will have to learn to love Death Valley. This transition will take time, but the United States can only fight and win in this new multipolar world if it begins today.

Melissa Flagg is a Visiting Scholar at Perry World House, a Fellow at the Acquisition Innovation Research Center, and an Advisor to the Andrew W. Marshall Foundation. She is also a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research with over fifteen years in defense research and engineering. She can be found on Twitter @flaggster73

Image: Flickr/US Department of Defense.

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