To Maintain Our Leading Military Edge, We Must Think Differently About Risk

April 1, 2019
By Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.)

“The Army is engaged in a protracted struggle to out-innovate our future competitors, and right now, we are not postured for success.”

This statement kicked off congressional testimony by four senior U.S. Army leaders, including now-Gen. John Murray, USA, commanding general of the new Army Futures Command (AFC). The command’s mission is to “out-innovate” our rivals.

I think this statement succinctly captures the paramount challenge of being hidebound by bureaucracy, fragmented efforts, conventional processes and, most importantly, an acute intolerance of perceived risk.

Many rules and bureaucracies bake significant risk into the process. A good example of this is the so-called waterfall acquisition approach, which the Defense Department has practiced for decades in delivering large weapon systems and information technology systems to the field, often with disastrous results. Waterfall acquisition is a linear acquisition model in which many of the largest risks, especially those relating to integration and operational testing, are unknown or unresolved until years of effort and significant budget resources are expended.

Joshua Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Department’s Defense Innovation Board, captured this point well in a recent roundtable. “We don’t have an operational test and evaluation infrastructure that can take all the risk out,” he stated. “Actually, we leave tons of the risk in. We just do it over a five-year period that comports with a system that was designed by Robert McNamara in the 1960s and has changed remarkably little.”

To bring emerging, game-shifting technologies to the field far faster than our rivals, the Defense Department will need to pivot its organizational culture from being risk averse to risk tolerant. That means understanding that some risk can be healthy so long as the risks are well understood, well managed and addressed early.

Three trends will drive the need to address risk in new ways. First, technology has advanced. Almost any capability one might consider appears feasible. Many of our service leaders are turning to commercial solutions, which is the right direction.

Second, the military is increasingly skewing toward a younger, more digitally savvy demographic. Roughly 90 percent of active-duty enlisted forces and approximately 70 percent of the active-duty officer corps is made up people who are millennials or younger. And we will start to see millennials filling one-star general and admiral billets within the next five to seven years. These younger generations have a far greater comfort level with the more iterative, agile, experimental and lean approaches which are needed to develop today’s and tomorrow’s new capabilities.

Third, we are already seeing some Defense Department leaders publicly acknowledging that old, conventional approaches to risk are a major barrier to success. “Potentially, a strategic Achilles heel is our ability to move with urgency to get these systems from the laboratory out into the fleet,” said Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, USN. “This is a problem where we just have to have a bias for getting things done, rather than a bias for studying them yet again before we get them done.”

Moreover, the department is taking some significant steps in reshaping itself to deliver more and faster innovation. The Army’s creation of Army Futures Command last year was one example. Others include the Defense Department’s 2015 creation of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental to more quickly identify, support and ingest emerging commercial technologies that can advance military capabilities.

Another example is the 2017 reorganization of the Office of Secretary of Defense’s Acquisition, Technology and Logistics directorate, which aims to accelerate the development and acquisition of cutting-edge technology and changing the mindsets of the acquisition workforce. And, the Navy’s publication in December of version 2.0 of “A Design For Maintaining Maritime Superiority”  established an ambitious set of goals designed to rapidly usher in a host of emerging capabilities and technologies—artificial intelligence, machine learning, new data architectures, additive manufacturing, hypersonic weapons and laser weapons—throughout the fleet.

We are seeing changes in practices emerging in how defense organizations develop, test and acquire new capabilities. The explosive use of other transaction authority (OTA) arrangements; the Army’s use of cross-functional teams; the Navy’s use of focused consortiums; and the Air Force’s use of agile development with its Kessel Run program all reflect a widespread effort to streamline development and ingestion of new technologies through more modern risk-managed approaches.

Have we gone far enough? It is critical we understand there is enormous risk in not changing the way the Defense Department delivers technology and capability to the field. If we cannot out-innovate our adversaries, we run the real risk of losing our military advantage.

Lt. Gen. Susan Lawrence, USA (Ret.), is managing director for the Armed Forces Sector, Accenture Federal Services. She previously served as the CIO/G-6 for the U.S. Army as well as the commanding general for the Army’s Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM).

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