Ever since private industry overtook the Defense Department as the locus of technological advancement in the U.S., the Pentagon has increasingly articulated a desire to adopt the best of the commercial sector into the military. But a new report suggests the department hasn’t been able to establish an acquisition environment ripe for integration of cutting-edge tech—instead, it’s been dabbling in “innovation tourism.”
Despite the proliferation of hubs for innovation across DOD—like the Defense Innovation Unit and AFWERX—the agency lacks a coherent strategy to link up innovation with procurement, according to a Center for Security and Emerging Technology report released Monday. Instead, the Pentagon has acted like a tourist, spending here and there before moving onto the next hot spot. According to the report, the crux of the issue isn’t necessarily about how much money is being spent or even problems with acquisition and innovation offices themselves. It’s a problem of organizational structure.
“An organization as large as the DOD—which controls roughly 45 percent of the U.S. government’s discretionary budget—cannot rely on impromptu conversations, serendipity, and old-friend networks to diffuse knowledge across the acquisition ecosystem,” the report reads. “However, that is where things stand today.”
DOD’s so-called “valley of death” phenomenon, which officials and experts use to describe the period between when companies receive funding for development and when their product gets integrated into a program of record, is a well-documented one, with officials, outside experts and industry voices decrying the problem alike. In March, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks directed the establishment of a steering group focused on innovation that officials say is aimed at transforming DOD processes to become better adopters of tech.
While overhauling DOD’s acquisition environment is a significant undertaking, CSET found a key barrier to adoption of innovative technology is the arbitrary separation of innovation hubs from acquisition offices. Jack Corrigan, a CSET research analyst and a former reporter for Nextgov who co-authored the report, said there’s a dearth of incentives and resources to foster the kind of information sharing that would unite requirements with the latest and greatest technology offerings in the marketplace. Procurement officials aren’t required to seek out expertise from innovation offices when writing solicitations, and innovation offices aren’t explicitly required to distribute their knowledge either.
“We need to figure out a way to require and incentivize acquisition offices to take advantage of all of this very valuable knowledge of the commercial technology marketplace that is accumulating within innovation offices, and then require them to use that information when drafting requirements for these big platforms and systems that the military is buying,” Corrigan said.
CSET makes three main recommendations in the report: Define innovation goals and increase transparency; share and use market intelligence across the acquisition ecosystem, including requiring information sharing among program offices and innovation offices; and create safe spaces like consortia for collaboration. Corrigan said DOD can mostly make changes aligned to implement these recommendations on its own, but that Congressional involvement may be able to promote certain actions particularly around the intelligence sharing point.
“You would first need to require the innovation offices to compile all of this knowledge and market intelligence into a single database and share that with the acquisition offices … so they would need to show how they’ve incorporated all of this market intelligence into the solicitations that they are putting out, and when they don’t incorporate that information, they would need to explain why,” Corrigan said. “And for us that is the single recommendation that we think is most critical to solving this problem.”