Defense Innovation, Part 1
March 3, 2020
Kathleen Hicks: 00:03 Hi, I'm Kathleen Hicks, Senior Vice President and Director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. And this is Defense 2020, a CSIS podcast examining critical defense issues in the United States' 2020 election cycle. We bring in defense experts from across the political spectrum to survey the debates over the U.S. Military strategy, missions and funding. This podcast is made possible by contributions from BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Thales Group.
Kathleen Hicks: 00:40 In this episode of Defense 2020, I'll be speaking with three experts about innovation in the national security sector. My colleague, Andrew Hunter, Director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and Senior Fellow in the International Security Program here at CSIS. Chris Brose, Head of Strategy at Anduril Industries, and a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. And Rachel Hoff, Policy Director at the Ronald Reagan Institute.
Kathleen Hicks: 01:06 You can't go a foot inside DOD [Department of Defense] these days or across the defense enterprise without people talking about defense innovation, technology, competition with China. And so this episode and the next, we're really going to try to focus in on what some of these terms even mean, and how the Department of Defense and the defense enterprise more broadly can pace or outpace the challenges that are perceived to exist.
Kathleen Hicks: 01:31 So we're going to start right now, I think with Andrew Hunter, and ask you to kick us off thinking through, are we in a truly different period of time right now? Or is this just more of the same conversation we have year over year about the need for DOD to shift its culture, get into gear, and be more innovative?
Andrew Hunter: 01:52 Well, I think it's probably more a continuation than it is a break. There's various elements that go into building defense capabilities and piece together different combinations over time. In that sense, this is a unique moment, because it's a unique combination, but there's a lot that's consistent. So in my brief career in this business, we've had the emphasis on the revolution in military affairs and that gave way to transformation. And then, when the wars came that fell out of favor, we focused more on rapid acquisition and delivering capability as rapidly as possible. And now we're in the return to great power competition and a focus on capabilities needed for that.
Andrew Hunter: 02:31 And so speed is, I would say a very high priority right now, compared to where it's been necessarily over time. But all of these things I think have consistently been in the mix of priorities and there's a lot of continuity in that.
Kathleen Hicks: 02:46 Rachel, something old, something new or something different.
Rachel Hoff: 02:49 Well, I'll make the case for something different. I think Andrew makes a really good point about our approach has been consistent over multiple cycles of thinking about these same issues over time. But perhaps what's new in this moment, is the nature of our adversary, the nature of our competition. So, compared to era's past, certainly the post-Cold War era where our competitors were far down the list. But even compared to the Cold War where certainly economically, we were leaps and bounds ahead of our prime adversary in the Soviet Union, and there was a way in which military acquisitions strategy and the technological advances that we had in the defense space at the time were both about capabilities, and in some sense about bankrupting our adversary. That's not going to work here.
Rachel Hoff: 03:34 Our main competitor in China is not only leaps and bounds ahead of where the Soviet Union was comparatively, in terms of capabilities and technological development, but also their economy in many senses, is already ahead of ours and bigger than ours. And so as we think about key investments, I think perhaps we are in a new era of needing to think about them more urgently and differently than how we have in the past.
Kathleen Hicks: 04:02 Chris, what's your take?
Chris Brose: 04:03 I think it's a bit of both, and that sounds like a cop out, but I'll explain it. I think that there's a lot of continuity and I think you can go back and read a lot of the things that we were saying that Andrew referenced in the early 1990s, the military technical revolution and documents like that. And it makes you want to cry how similar the things we were saying 25 years ago are to the things that we're saying today. And it begs the question why we've done so few of the things that we said were important and necessary to do.
Chris Brose: 04:33 At the same time though, I do think that there is something new about this. There's something that feels new, and I think Rachel put her finger on it. I think that there is a recognition that the threat is fundamentally forcing us to change much of the conversation. I think about innovation over the past 25 years, has really taken the flavor of, "We should change because it would be good to," that it's an opportunity to change. Whereas now it feels like we really need to change, because the adversary has done things over the past two decades that have called into question the way we fight, the way we operate, the way we build forces. And if we keep doing the same things we've always done, we're going to be in a pretty bad spot in the future.
Chris Brose: 05:12 So in my estimation, there's more of a sense of urgency behind this new focus on innovation. But I go back to where I started, there's a lot of things that we're saying that we need to do that we've said we need to do for a very long time. And you'd be right to ask the question, "Well why is this time going to be different?"
Kathleen Hicks: 05:30 So you point out the challenges of course of the past. Do you think that the press of, in particular, the China challenge as specifically Rachel put it forward, but is generally talked about. Do you think that's going to be enough then to create a different outcome this time? And what do you think is most needed to get there?
Chris Brose: 05:52 I think it should be enough and I think it's certainly more than we've had in the past. Whether or not we'll actually get there, I'm a bit cynical. I think that the conversation in the Department of Defense, there are a lot of people at various senior levels who are focused on this problem, who are genuinely trying to do things differently, not just bring new technologies into the Department. But I think the more fundamental question, is actually reevaluate and reassess how we fight, how we build concepts and operate the force differently to solve different kinds of problems and not just repeat the ways that we've been doing it.
Chris Brose: 06:30 That being said, I think the broader ability to change is inherently political, economic, social, those are the drags that I worry are going to be much slower in changing. And there's going to be much more reluctance to move as fast as I think many in the Department of Defense in the military would like to, and in fact, many leaders in Congress would like to.
Kathleen Hicks: 06:53 So Rachel, you and your colleagues at the Reagan forum, and Chris was a participant I know from the outside, have done quite a bit of work on some of the ways we could change. And I just will give you plenty of time throughout this podcast series to talk through some of those recommendations, but right up front, where were you and your colleagues seeing those biggest barriers to this shift to make this moment different than it's been in the past, and how do we get over them?
Rachel Hoff: 07:19 As we came out of years of Reagan National Defense Forums, that happen every year out at the Reagan Library and came out of the Obama Administration and into the Trump Administration with the new National Defense Strategy. In many ways actually I think rather than where the biggest barriers were, I think we saw, or challenges to pursuing change, we actually saw a really fertile ground for opportunity, that there perhaps in a new way, after the National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy come out around 2017, 2018, that there's actually a new broad bipartisan consensus certainly echoed by or articulated by this Administration, in particular the Pentagon. But also, where there's agreement across the aisle. I think on Capitol Hill you see leaders on defense from the Republican side and from the Democratic side, echoing this narrative of strategic competition and of the rise of China and the challenges that that presents.
Rachel Hoff: 08:20 And so I'd say actually, our approach to the work that we've done over the last year on national security, technology and innovation, and workforce issues, actually rose maybe more out of that, that compared to, say the 90s, where I don't think you had bipartisan consensus on how to think about China, maybe not bipartisan and also not sort of agreement between security types, and those that were concerned about economic engagement and across the different sectors of government. I think within the USG [U.S. government] and across political lines, we saw more agreement about how to tackle challenges and opportunities, and wanted to really lean into that and come up with a set of recommendations. And I'm happy to kind of chat about as we move forward.
Kathleen Hicks: 09:06 So Andrew, let me add a dose of cynicism, and you can try to break it down. These are all great rationales for why now is the moment and why it's important. And even taking those as a given, you still have to deal with the reality of bureaucratic cultures, of industry preferences that are built up over years that are inside, if you will, the iron triangle of Congress and industry and different components within the Department aligning themselves to, what I would call particularized interests, that aren't necessarily aligned directly to the [National Defense] Strategy, but could easily take on the language of the strategy in order to justify themselves.
Kathleen Hicks: 09:48 So there are all these things we know bureaucracies do, and specifically, all these things we've seen the defense bureaucracies do over bureaucracies, broadly speaking, over time. What should we expect them to do now? And again, give a little hope perhaps. Can we actually anticipate something beyond just the China challenge driving at the base level bottom up reform?
Andrew Hunter: 10:14 Yeah. No, I think that's a really excellent question. Because you're right, it is incredibly easy for those in the bureaucracy to adopt the latest buzzwords and recast their initiative as being exactly what leadership says, or what they think the leadership is saying that they want, by employing the correct buzzwords in the correct order almost like a spell in a medieval context an incantation. And that's where, to me, I always come back to thinking about it in terms of form following function that yes, the world is changing. We know that the system needs to change to deal and confront with a changing world, but how is the world changing more specifically while China's a different competitor potentially as a pacing threat than the Soviet Union was. But again, how is it different? I certainly agree with Rachel on one of the most significant facts is that it's a much stronger and bigger economic power.
Andrew Hunter: 11:05 But as you look at the technologies that are changing, and I know there's a lot more to innovation than technology, but on the technical side, to me the thing that really jumps out is the way that everything is digitized. And software is now really the driving force behind most of the capabilities. And so material science is still important. There's things that we've traditionally done that are important, but we really are challenged to wrap our arms around making software do the things we need to do for future capability.
Andrew Hunter: 11:34 So I think about it in terms of, we have to really focus on those things that help us do the things we aren't good at doing that we know we need to do a lot more of. And I would nominate ... Really good software development is something that the Department has not been good at for some time, and that is incredibly vital.
Kathleen Hicks: 11:53 And you think the bureaucracies, if you will, can get themselves to view that as a priority? Or do you think it's going to require some sort of outside force, whether that's the threat environment or significant leadership?
Andrew Hunter: 12:07 Yeah, it's funny, I was going to say this, because I'm usually the voice of continuity, but I do think it's going to require radical change in the way we ... our personnel structures, right? To be able to bring in people who can do software development and make that a critical focus of our force. Not saying that they have to all be military service members, but for the Department as a whole, I do think that's going to require some pretty significant change in personnel systems, budgeting systems, you name it, to make that effective over time. It's not going to happen all at once, but I think over time that is required.
Kathleen Hicks: 12:40 Chris, I'm going to set up what I have to imagine is going to be a softball question for you. Which is, sometimes the defense enterprise is conservative toward change, because change has actually been pursued against the better interests of the United States. So for instance, folks inside the ground forces often feel that they're put on the chopping block, when in fact we end up having to come back to ground force requirements over time. And then we spend money and time rebuilding them.
Kathleen Hicks: 13:12 You can look at production lines that sometimes the Department has put on, but Congress in its infinite wisdom, has decided it should come back. And in some cases, those have proven out like the A-10 Warthog, which of course has this almost mythical history of proving itself out, albeit many years ago, even when it had been on the chopping block. So should we be, this is the softball part. Should we be a little more conservative in our approach to change after all?
Chris Brose: 13:43 I think being conservative is not a bad thing. I think that there's a reason why the Department of Defense is inherently slow to change. The wrong kind of change, pursued the wrong ways can be incredibly risky. It can cost people's lives. Bureaucracies exist to slow down the wrong kind of change. That's not a bad thing, but leaders have to be able to overcome that. And I think the greater risk that we have right now, is not changing too much or changing too quickly, it's that we're not going to be able to change enough or change fast enough to deal with a threat that is moving very quickly, and deal with technology that is in many respects, way ahead of where the defense establishment is.
Chris Brose: 14:29 I think just recognizing in many ways the degree to which the Department of Defense is simply behind commercial technology, where members of the military use technologies in their daily lives that they have come to take for granted, that they don't have access to when they put their uniforms on. That in and of itself should suggest to us that now is not time for a healthy appreciation of the slowness of change. I think we need to move a lot faster. And I think the greater risk we have, is that in moving too slowly, we're going to be left behind, whether it's by the pace of technology or the pace of the adversary.
Kathleen Hicks: 15:10 So, also want to give you an opportunity to weigh in where Andrew did, in terms of where you think those approaches can be most meaningful. He talked about software and he talks specifically about people, radical changes and people. Where are there radical changes you think are needed?
Chris Brose: 15:28 I guess the one area that I would really underscore is in autonomy. I think that's a technology that has come a very long way; artificial intelligence and machine learning. There are many things that those technologies are still not capable of doing well, but there are many things that they can do extremely well and better than human beings, in fact.
Chris Brose: 15:50 I think that the great opportunity that those technologies present is the ability to actually delegate to intelligent machines and programs many of the repetitive and mundane tasks that so many members of our military have to do day in and day out, literally tens of thousands of members of the force. That's not an opportunity to replace those people. It's an opportunity for those people to actually do higher value work, the kinds of things that they actually joined the military to do to make operational and ethical decisions, to make better decisions based on the information they have. Those technologies will enable them to spend more of their time on those high impact functions. Those are not science fiction, those are things that they use in their daily lives many times, those are technologies that exist now. But they are not things that are readily available in the Department of Defense.
Kathleen Hicks: 16:49 I'm sure many listeners, when they hear autonomy, they think about lethal autonomy. Drones for strike for example, unmanned aerial vehicles with strike capability, that's been the lived experience for many people when they've heard about it in the media. But it sounds to me like what you're talking about more than anything is, am I correct? Is a set of functions that are not necessarily about the lethal edge, but are about other functions in the military?
Chris Brose: 17:22 Yeah, I think it's both. I mean, I think that a lot of times when we look at U.S. drone strikes, Predator Reaper Aircraft, we refer to them as unmanned systems, they're exquisitely manned systems. Every task that the system performs is done by a human being remotely. I think the opportunity is in thinking about the types of tasks that militaries have to perform, it's not just pulling the trigger, it's the things left that; collecting information, processing and making sense of information, making better decisions, making them faster, making them at scale, and then ultimately the actions that they take that flow from that.
Chris Brose: 18:01 There are many different processes or many different parts of those tasks that increasingly intelligent machines are going to be able to help human beings to do better and faster and at scale. And that certainly will take the form of increasingly autonomous systems, many different domains that are going to be capable of doing many of the things that humans have had to do before. But I don't think that that means that human beings are just going to be turning these decisions of life and death over to machines. These are machines that are going to be programmed and architected by human beings, they're going to be tested and trained by human beings. That's the kind of trust that we're ultimately going to have to build up in these systems before we rely on them to do many of the tasks, not least taking military action, but these systems are going to be capable of doing it, and many of them are capable of doing it now.
Kathleen Hicks: 18:58 So Rachel, we've heard about software development, we've heard about growing autonomy. Where are you seeing the big muscle movers and linchpins of change?
Rachel Hoff: 19:09 You know, I actually think that Andrew and Chris have really touched on those key technology areas where change is so vital. And I guess if I were to add anything, I would just say, whatever the particular technology, and there are people that are digging in on the cyber piece, there's the AI [artificial intelligence] Commission, there's a ton of conversation and movement on developing a 5G strategy. Across those technologies, just from a broader perspective, want to emphasize how important it is that whatever the technology, that the U. S. Government really wraps its arms around this problem and figures out a way to move forward on technology and innovation strategically across government. Whether that's in the DOD or more broadly. I mean obviously, there's huge pieces of the broader innovation issues that reside outside of the DOD at [the Department of] Commerce, or White House OSTP [Office of Science and Technology Policy), or at [the Department of] Treasury. And it has to be that much beloved phrase, the whole of government approach.
Andrew Hunter: 20:23 If I could just jump in on that, because Rachel mentioned earlier, the differences from the cold war environment, China is a different competitor. I also think one of the differences now versus the 1990s, is in the 1990s we knew we wanted DOD to adopt commercial technology, legislation was adopted to that. But there was very much a perception that a defense and a defense mindset was kind of a threat to the civilian and commercial economy, and that they were intentioned with one another. And now my belief certainly is that DOD has a vital role to play in a global strategic competition for economic supply chains across a whole large swaths of the economy. They're not going to be driven by defense, because defense is economically speaking, a relatively small sector.
Andrew Hunter: 21:07 But I think there are key interdependencies going both directions in sectors like 5g, and in artificial intelligence, and some other of these technologies that we can play it up. And I think you're exactly right, it's going to take muscles and the hall of government system that have completely atrophied and or have always were non-existent. And we're going to have to figure that out. I wish I had the answer.
Kathleen Hicks: 21:32 Well we're going to come back. You're going to have a chance whether you like it or not to provide some answers, because I want to come back to these bigger themes beyond DOD. But staying kind of tightly on the DOD point just for a moment. We've talked a little bit about technologies, we've talked a little bit about people, but we haven't yet talked about how the enterprise ties them together and in specific, I would of course raise my favorite issue, which is concepts, experimentation, exercises, and shifting from prototype to fielding. And that seems to me to be where we have tried and failed multiple times to make progress. So what are the winning elements of that formula? What should we be looking for in this radical reform we want DOD to do?
Chris Brose: 22:17 I actually think many of the ways in which we failed to change can be traced back to the fundamental question that we just didn't think differently about fighting differently. I think that everything that we want to do with new technologies has to come back to that question. Artificial intelligence is inherently uninteresting to militaries. It's interesting, in so far only as it enables them to do different kinds of things, operate differently, build different kinds of forces. It makes them better at doing the very thing that they want to do and have to do. If we're not thinking about the problem that way, if we're not defining the problem that way, we're going to get stuck. Great power competition has now become an acronym, so it's already on the path to becoming ridiculous. You hear people refer to GPC-
Kathleen Hicks: 23:06 You will never hear me refer to great power competition, but you are absolutely right.
Chris Brose: 23:10 Touché'. But it's a serious point in so far as, these buzzwords can actually become impediments to innovation, because everyone will just say everything that they've been doing is now consistent with the new buzzwords, the new Strategy. Senior leaders have to unpack these questions and really define the operational problems that the military has to solve.
Chris Brose: 23:35 That's what they have to do at the senior levels, but what they need to do at the lower levels, is exactly what you mentioned. They have to bring new technologies in. They have to experiment with them, they have to try to solve these problems in different ways. And they have to have metrics to measure whether they are actually performing or not. And to me, it's all about just that speed of being able to go from decision or rather, understanding to decision to action, what the military calls closing the kill chain. That's got to be the thing that we're relentlessly measuring ourselves against. How quickly we can do it, how many times we can do it, how flexible the force is, it being able to compose and recompose itself to meet those kinds of operational objectives. If we're not doing that, then all of this stuff is going to become old wine in new bottles.
Rachel Hoff: 24:23 I'll jump into and pick up on a word that that Chris has actually mentioned a couple of times when he's talked about leaders. The role of leadership here is going to be crucial, whether that's senior leaders of the department or in the services, leadership on Capitol Hill. And I think in particular to your question, Kath, that comes into play when we think about the need for risk positivity in this space, when we do the things that Chris is talking about with experimentation and prototyping, it's certainly true that if the projects aren't failing, they're not experimenting enough. And leaning into that becomes in many ways, it's sort of out of step with what the DOD is built to do. And in some ways, the military itself is built to do. It's certainly a little bit of a hot potato, I guess on Capitol Hill where regarding taxpayer dollars is one of their most important priorities and rightly so.
Rachel Hoff: 25:24 But as we think about the best use of taxpayer dollars, as we think about the best way to field these new technologies to get them to the war fighter, as anyone Chris can attest to who's spent time in the innovation space will tell you, experimentation and failure go hand in hand. And it's incumbent on leadership to provide the kind of cover so that folk know that that's part of the process and a necessary part of the process.
Andrew Hunter: 25:52 Yeah, I think of it in terms of something that I think is completely honestly lacking, which is a user feedback loop. So experimentation is great, but in addition to that, I want forces that are employing capability to be able to, in real time communicate, "This is what it can do that I need. This is what it's doing I don't need. This is what I need to have, it doesn't do." And we just don't have a mechanism for that. In theory, the requirements process is supposed to do that, but it is so static. It is so time delayed, and it doesn't really represent the war fighter in a meaningful way. That we just, honestly, we don't have it. We don't have the beta testers that you would see that a software startup would employ in order to work out the kinks or identify the strengths of the system they didn't even realize they had designed, that may become the application, the killer app that they didn't have in mind when they started. And so that's something that we don't have in our system and it's really vital that we figure out how to do that.
Chris Brose: 26:49 Could I just add a brief point to that, because I totally agree. And I think it helps to explain what is to me one of the biggest problems that we have traditionally had that I still see as one of the huge stumbling blocks in front of us, which is the failure to scale innovative systems that are actually working. And I think a lot of it can be explained as Andrew just did, by the failure to generate user feedback.
Chris Brose: 27:14 But right now, there's a focus, there's a plethora of activities to bring new companies, new entrance into the Department of Defense. It's never been easier to get a $50,000 contract or something to get started. It's that traditional “valley of death” that remains in front of all of those small companies. And all of those small contracts that has been the stumbling block before. And I see no evidence that we have figured out a better way to get the capabilities that are true winners that are game changers, from the small contract that gets you in the door to the, $500 million, $1 billion program or Program of Record that is really going to make an impact for the war fighter and certainly help that small company become a larger, more vital part of the defense innovation base.
Kathleen Hicks: 28:01 So Andrew, if you can, help us through a little bit of history. Because I can't understand how we got from the pre-911 era, where we had things like JCTs, which I think is joint concept and technology developments, a process that was a complete recognition of this idea, that we've always had this “valley of death” challenge there. Of course, at the end of the 90s and going into early 2000s, you had this push around innovation when ... It preceded Secretary Rumsfeld, but probably most famously was Secretary Rumsfeld.
Kathleen Hicks: 28:33 He created this Office of Force Transformation. There was this effort underway to try new things, put new systems and a lot of consideration about this fielding challenge. Fast forward to the time you were in the Pentagon and you're doing joint rapid acquisition and it is around not an experiment field, but an actual battlefield, which is now substituted, if you will, for experimentation, because we actually have a war fighter who's out there trying to get capability. And presumably, you're doing something there, right? To try to get that capability and then get us to today. What's changed and what that is missing needs to be created?
Andrew Hunter: 29:13 Well, as you say, what changed? When you're doing actual operations, you have that natural experimental, you don't want to think of it as an experiment, because there's lives at stake. But you have that natural feedback loop to some extent in the mechanism. What didn't change? So we procured a lot of equipment and rapid acquisition to equip the force. Then as operations drew down, the question was, what do we do with all this stuff? Well, a lot of it got thrown away. And a lot of it got thrown away, because the services said, "Hey, our long term priorities haven't changed at all. We still see a different kind of a fight in the future than today's fight. And so we're going to get rid of a lot of that stuff. And in many cases, that was probably the right decision.
Andrew Hunter: 29:58 In other cases, I think we acted foolishly and we gave up learning that we had painfully one during the wars, because it didn't fit a vision of the future that the inherent institutional, what I like to call the institutional pathologies or the services couldn't absorb, couldn't recognize. And I think that's where we still fall down, is you can't, I think completely eliminate some of these institutional pathologies there, having organizations creates them, but I think we don't do a very good job accounting for them, creating a counterbalance that says, "Yeah, this institutional pathology exists and we're going to have another organization or another power source that counterbalances that, a DOTNE, a function within the OSD that counterbalances what the services may do left to their own devices. That breaks the loop.
Kathleen Hicks: 30:49 That's the perfect way, I think, to end this first episode. And that means in the second episode, I'm going to hope that Chris and Rachel and Andrew, you're going to solve all of these problems that we have laid in on the table, so please stay tuned.
Kathleen Hicks: 31:05 On behalf of CSIS, I'd like to thank our sponsors, BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and the Thales Group for contributing to Defense 2020. If you enjoyed this podcast, check out some of our other CSIS podcasts, including Smart Women, Smart Power, The Truth of the Matter, the Asia Chessboard and more. You can listen to them all on major streaming platforms like iTunes and Spotify. Visit csis.org/podcasts to see our full catalog. And for all of CSIS's defense related content, visit defense360.dot.csis.org.