An Alternative to the Defense Department’s New, Technology-Focused Organizations

The national security community increasingly creates new organizations to manage technology. Just within the Department of Defense (DOD), the past three years have seen the elevation of U.S. Cyber Command and the creation of the Space Force, U.S. Space Command, Space Development Agency, Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, Army Futures Command, and an Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Looking to the future, some have even suggested creating a cyber defense agency or a new missile defense agency.

Policymakers often create new organizations to prioritize technology. But if new organizations separate technology and missions, they can be counterproductive—and create bureaucratic barriers that instead hurt technology development and fielding. Policymakers, therefore, should be wary of creating new organizations that focus solely on high priority technology. Instead, the national security community should carefully construct new organizations to facilitate technology development and fielding by integrating—rather than separating—technology and missions.

Today’s Focus on Technology

Many of today’s new organizations separate technology and missions. The new Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, for instance, was created to “accelerat[e] the delivery of artificial intelligence-enabled capabilities.” DOD’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) Strategy acknowledges, however, that one of the center’s first tasks is to “work with teams across DOD to identify, prioritize, and select new AI mission initiatives”—since, at its establishment, the center apparently lacked missions for its new technology. As it matures, the center will face challenges identifying appropriate missions and transferring the technology it develops to outside organizations that execute those missions.

The Space Development Agency also separates technology from missions by developing hundreds of small satellites to execute missions that may already exist in other organizations. Former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson questioned the agency’s creation, writing that “until the Space Development Agency has a uniquely identifiable mission that cannot be accomplished by current organizations, the plan should not move forward.” Additionally, it remains unclear whether the Space Development Agency will procure the small satellites it develops or transfer them to separate acquisition organizations in the Space Force.

Unfortunately, even the Space Force’s mission remains unclear. To date, the Space Force’s primary goal appears to be increasing advocacy for space-related personnel, training, and equipment (i.e., technology) inside DOD. Separating space-based technology (primarily Air Force satellites) from the other military services is problematic, however, because important components of the end-to-end space architecture—including user terminals and ground systems—are managed by the Army and Navy. Rather than consolidating that end-to-end architecture into a single, mission-focused organization, the current instantiation of the Space Force further separates space-based capabilities from the broader DOD missions they support. Going forward, the Space Force may face challenges bridging organizational divides and providing capabilities that integrate effectively with the other military services.

U.S. Space Command also separates satellite operations from geographic combatant commanders’ Earth-bound missions. Satellites provide communications, navigation, and missile warning—all of which are critical to combatant commanders and enable their missions. Space Command, therefore, may face challenges prioritizing its support to Earth-bound commanders, defining command and control relationships to govern that support, and overcoming institutional barriers to integrated space and Earth-based operations.

Although more mature than Space Command, U.S. Cyber Command is still working to overcome those barriers today. Like Space Command, former director Admiral Michael Rogers says that “Cyber Command, in many ways, what we do functions to support others. We exist to enable and support the success of others.” To facilitate other commands’ integrated employment of cyber capabilities, Cyber Command—itself a new organization—established additional coordination and planning cells inside the other commands. Although these cells should improve operational integration, they illustrate the effort that is required to bridge organizational divides between technology and missions.

Finally, policymakers created the new Army Futures Command and Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering to prioritize technology development by separating it from mission operations. Technology developers, however, often benefit from close collaboration with operators. Both organizations, therefore, will need to actively bridge institutional divides and foster collaboration among developers and operators; Army Futures Command, for example, is using cross-functional teams to achieve this effect today. It remains to be seen though, how both organizations will facilitate technology’s transition from development to operations—by ensuring that new capabilities are transferred to outside organizations for procurement.

An Alternative Focus on Missions

Clearly, today’s national security community has an affinity for creating new organizations to prioritize technology. But by separating technology from existing institutions whose missions could benefit from it, today’s new organizations create barriers to technology development and fielding. Separation matters in the government since bureaucracies are notoriously stove-piped, and separate organizations often engage in turf wars. The military services are engaged in a continuous battle for resources and influence, for example.

Turf wars impede interorganizational collaboration and make it harder to break down the stovepipes that are created by separating technology and missions. Furthermore, as I observed in my doctoral research, turf wars hurt technology development by slowing it down and by constraining organizations’ ability to make targeted investments in capabilities that directly contribute to their missions.

Going forward, the national security community should think more carefully about the stovepipes and turf wars that are engendered by separating technology and missions. Where possible, policymakers can avoid creating bureaucratic barriers between technology and missions by first prioritizing technology within existing institutions. If this is not preferable, policymakers should create new organizations carefully—by ensuring they are thoughtfully constructed to facilitate technology development and fielding. To achieve this objective, policymakers should define new organizations by the distinct missions they execute, not by the high priority technology they manage.

Missions Drive Technology Development

When new organizations are defined by missions, policymakers can house both technology development and mission operations in the same institution. The proximity between technology and missions facilitates development by allowing missions to drive the demand for and design of new technology. This ensures that new technology is not developed in a vacuum where engineers have little ability to assess how new capabilities integrate into larger architectures or impact missions. It also facilitates DevOps—a development philosophy where engineers and operators interact—by housing both in the same organization.

In addition, mission-defined organizations can manage all of the technical capabilities that contribute to a mission rather than focusing exclusively on one type of technology. This creates more opportunities for engineers to innovate and optimize in pursuit of a mission since their design space is not constrained by their organization’s narrow focus on a single technology.

For example, the National Reconnaissance Office’s (NRO) mission is to conduct space-based reconnaissance. To execute that mission, the agency develops and procures intelligence satellites that collect data, communications satellites that transport data, and ground stations that receive data. The organization’s end-to-end approach to technology management gives engineers more flexibility to design an optimal set of technologies to execute their mission.

National Security Agency (NSA) engineers similarly benefit from their agency’s end-to-end approach to technology management. By controlling all technology that contributes to its signals intelligence mission, NSA can develop a “coherent architecture” that optimally integrates collection, processing, exploitation, and analysis technologies. Because NSA manages all technologies that contribute to its mission, it empowers its engineers to design holistic architectures to optimally execute that mission.

By creating new organizations that focus on high-priority technology, today’s policymakers constructed institutional barriers to the type of end-to-end, mission-focused architecture development that exists in NRO and NSA. Even today’s new, technology-focused combatant commands may disrupt architecture development by complicating command-and-control relationships amongst the various components in an end-to-end architecture. It remains to be seen, therefore, whether these new organizations—all of which separate technologies from the missions they support—will overcome institutional barriers and allow missions to drive the demand for and design of new technology.

Missions Facilitate Technology Fielding

Housing technology development and mission operations in the same organization can also facilitate technology fielding. Technology fielding, in this context, refers to a new technology’s transition out of development and into procurement and operations. Organizations that house both development and operations can facilitate technology fielding by managing the entire transition process.

Technology transition is a long-standing challenge for DOD. Frequently, new technology fails to bridge the valley of death and transition out of development and into procurement and operations. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), for example, encounters “administrative, funding, cultural, and programmatic barriers” that impede its ability to field the technology it develops. When development and procurement are managed by separate organizations—as is the case with DARPA—organizational barriers can impede technology transition as well.

For example, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) was created to develop missile defense technologies that the military services would eventually procure. To date, however, MDA has failed to transfer procurement responsibility for many of its major systems. In this way, MDA suffers from the classic “not invented here” problem—where external organizations are unwilling to adopt technology that they didn’t develop.

MDA overcame organizational barriers to technology transition by simply expanding its responsibilities and by doing procurement itself. Essentially, MDA has evolved from its original organizational construct—one that separated development and procurement—into an institution that manages the transition process. It remains to be seen whether today’s new organizations—many of which separate development and procurement—will evolve according to MDA’s trajectory or will instead face persistent, organizational barriers to technology transition.

A Future Focus on Missions

By defining new organizations by missions—not technology—policymakers can avoid creating institutional barriers to technology development and fielding. Today’s policymakers, unfortunately, have done the opposite. Ensuring the success of today’s new organizations, therefore, will require strong leadership that is committed to bridging institutional divides and to actively facilitating technology development and fielding.

To do this, DOD leaders need to create new mechanisms to link technology with mission operations. They should also provide direction and funding to help technology bridge the “valley of death” between development and procurement—especially when technology transition falls outside of both new and existing organizations’ responsibilities. Finally, policymakers should be willing to revisit how they constructed new organizations in the first place. By reallocating roles, missions, and authority, policymakers can minimize the institutional barriers they generated by constructing new organizations around high priority technology.

Going forward though, policymakers should simply avoid creating new organizations that separate technology and missions. Most simply, policymakers can keep technology and missions closely integrated by first prioritizing technology within existing institutions. Alternatively, they can ensure that new organizations are thoughtfully constructed to focus on missions rather than on high priority technology. To truly prioritize technology, the national security community must facilitate its development and fielding—and avoid creating new organizations that generate bureaucratic barriers to both.

Morgan Dwyer is a fellow in the International Security Program and deputy director for policy analysis in the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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