What's the future of defense innovation under Trump?

dollar question 

While President Donald Trump has called for rebuilding and growing the U.S. military, budget constraints mean innovation and modernization could take a backseat to readiness and force size.

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, former Department of Defense officials said it is still unclear what Trump's specific strategy is for Pentagon spending. They did say innovation will be in the mix, but the question is how it will compete with other priorities and constituencies.

Kathleen Hicks, former DOD principal deputy under secretary for policy, said the champions of innovation must stop obsessing about labels and buzzwords like "transformation" and focus on the "institutional foundational level" of innovation.

She added that the DOD needs to move from "thinking just about technology to [thinking] about concepts and innovative culture and the way you hire and advance personnel in the system, and of course authorities."

Frank Kendall, former DOD undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, wants to see the new administration pick up procurement innovation where the previous administration left off, under efforts including the Third Offset Strategy, Better Buying Power 3.0 and various innovation initiatives.

"Quite frankly we did not finish the job," he said. "We got part-way there. We identified some very attractive technologies. We started a number of experiments. We need to make decisions about specific operational concepts, specific ways of fighting basically and then start to buy the equipment to do that," he added. "It's going to be much more difficult than it was early in my career when we had a substantial national technological advantage over any adversary."

Kendall said that, with adversaries able to leverage commercial technologies and undermine how the U.S. has projected power in the past, the DOD needs to be more strategic in its investments.

"It's a much more important problem to solve than trying to get more money just to make the forces larger," he said. "Making them larger may very well be...investing in things that are obsolete as soon as you buy them."

Though, Hicks argued that the U.S. might be well positioned to make some advances on defense innovation due to the Republican Party's control of Congress and the White House.

"This might be the time to be able to push through some of those really difficult political barriers that have existed...that relate to innovation, certainly in terms of acquisition reform and helping it be done well," she said.

Kendall said his philosophy of acquisition reform was to make incremental changes.

"I stayed [at the Pentagon so long] because I wanted to put policies in place and then be there long enough to keep them consistently in place to show some progress," he said. "I thought I did all of that. What I did not succeed in doing was convincing the Congress that that was the right approach."

Kendall said he still firmly opposes the move by Congress to split AT&L into two new offices. He said it is essential to have one person responsible for all lifecycle phases of a program, and that the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act creates three new undersecretary positions in between the office of secretary of defense and the service secretaries.

"There's a lot of work left to be done," he said. "It is not...going to be helped by more rules coming out of the Congress," and instead the work needs to be done inside the Pentagon by people who know the programs.

"The thing I would ask the Congress to do is hold people responsible," Kendall said. "Let people have authority, make it clear who's in charge and then hold people responsible. That includes going back several years and dragging people like myself back in three or four years from now to explain a decision that we made."

He said it will take several years to see whether some of the programs he initiated were the right decisions.

"If it turns out I did a horrible job, I would be perfectly happy to go back in and try to work out what went wrong and explain myself to the Congress," he said.

About the Author

Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.

Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.

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