By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Contributor for In Homeland Security
Even with a $70 billion R&D budget, the Principal Deputy in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense Research and Engineering, Alan Shaffer, said “Our technological superiority is under some threat…Now we’re starting to see other countries using advanced electronic warfare, missiles and other technologies that will stress us…We are faced with conditions we haven’t seen since the Cold War. We have some nations developing high technology…I am hopeful you’ll see an openness in the department that may not have been there in the last couple of decades. We simply have to be more open to what is in industry.”
Last year, the previous Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, confirmed this and said, “We all know that DoD no longer has exclusive access to the most cutting-edge technology or the ability to spur or control the development of new technologies the way we once did.”
The transition of leading technology is vested primarily in the private sector and that advantage is proliferating throughout the world. There is also a catch-up phase pursed by America’s strategic competitors that has been ongoing and intensified over the last decade. This was clearly predicted and discussed at length in defense circles. China is one such example of rapid military and defense acquisition; Russia is another. Now that state actors re-emerge as a primary tier strategic security focus again, beyond counterterrorism operations, the proper attention is deserved. What is missing is any game changing military breakthroughs.
National Defense Magazine explained the U.S. technological decline as a present “innovation deficit.” Research priorities are now being recommitted to more appropriate areas and improvements in working with the private sector.
According to National Defense Magazine, DoD is concentrating research within 17 portfolios, including: “data and analytics, engineering resilient systems, cyber technology, electronic warfare, countering weapons of mass destruction, autonomy, human systems, advanced electronics, air platforms, biomedical, countering improvised explosive devices, energy and power, ground and sea platforms, materials and manufacturing, sensors, space and weapons.”
The DoD is expected to work more with unconventional and up-and-coming tech companies that are not contractors and may also have an aversion to sell to the military. So there is also a PR and outreach aspect that should be considered. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and Special Operations can move quickly in working with new companies and fast-tracked research, but the rest of the Department of Defense wants the same flexibility.
A few things not mentioned in the National Defense Magazine article are the barriers of entry. In addition to fears of patent theft of the little guys from working with titan contractors, is the red tape, the process and procedure, the fear to go through it, risk, etc. Of course, the quick turn-around for private citizens and small innovators to pay and rewards is key, as the article points out. But even larger players like SpaceX and Elon Musk had difficulty getting in. That event sparked a relook and rethink of the process, not to mention litigation. Musk’s lawsuit was just settled with the Air Force last month, when the Air Force increased the bidding opportunities for the near $70 billion Satellite launch contract. Previously, the bid was not competitive and awarded to the larger United Launch Alliance (the big guys). In defense, the Air Force had maintained that SpaceX had not undergone all of the rigors of qualification and certification but they just reached a settlement and are now working with SpaceX and Musk.
A large part of DoD technology acquisition has been stalled, filtered or even blocked by its largest suppliers that have a vested interest in remaining the largest share in the military industrial complex. Weeding out competition is a part of business but it affects innovation and access. There is a reason they are called “Beltway Bandits.” If you are not familiar with DC, defense contractors were positioned along or near the Capital Beltway, which is a highway that circles DC. In effect, these companies encircled the defense industry as well and took advantage of Uncle Sam whenever possible.
The issue of a revolving door and what is often referred to as double or triple dipping rise from the current system. The revolving door means going in and out of the private and public world, often at the highest levels. Retired senior officers or senior civilian DoD posts are hired by contractors whose networks of friends are instrumental during a recommendation, appointment and or hiring process. The key advantage is clear: America needs their expertise and experience, but downside is that fresh blood is blocked by a de facto seniority rotation. Innovation can also be side-lined for favor or access.
Double and triple dipping refers to retired military or DoD civilians that return as contractors and enjoy multiple pensions, retirement benefits and effectively double or triple pay schedules from Uncle Sam. Again, some of these people should be paid 10 times as much because they are worth the money but many others are a massive drain of waste on the system and another obstacle for the ‘outsiders’ to enter who have the innovation and technology in the private sector but not the connections or an understanding of the military complex. Oftentimes, ex-senior government or military officials will get involved with defense tech companies they have no understanding or idea how the products or company works but are hired only for the network and connections and familiarity with the system.
To reverse the old practice of walls and obstacles, the Pentagon is beginning to seek proposals on a much more active level than before. They are engaging in the private sector rather than waiting for the private sector to engage them. What this also means is that the tech companies that are coming out the best stuff are no longer the traditional big guys that are integrated into the system.
One solution in connecting more industry to DoD would be to encourage pairing-up retirees with expertise with fresh blood innovators and startup companies so that both could maximize their gains, rather than having them picked-picked off by the megacaps. Future enterprises might be later be acquired by the big guys but only after the innovation potential was maximized by the individual or smaller groups and the DoD capitalized on any breakthroughs. This could be done by having programs, pools, contests, lotteries, holding conventions, post-career workshops, etc. While some of these are already available, the larger efforts are needed to bridge the gap between the wider DoD and civilian worlds intercourse. They must uncomfortably come closer together to maximize Cold War level results. Opening up more competitive bids, lessening the barriers of entry into defense for the private sector and making it easier for civilians to rapidly increase innovation cycles looks like the future.