The Time for Disruptive Innovation Is Now
Since Russia’s illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, the world has learned that disruptive innovation’s effect on warfare is significant and helps less capable and less experienced forces punch above their weight. While powerful Western weapons have certainly played a role in pushing back Russian forces and defending Ukraine, the power of disruptive capabilities offers the clearest lessons and ones most applicable to the United States, especially as it relates to a future conflict against another superpower, like China.
Clayton M. Christensen’s model of disruptive innovation has played out across commercial markets for many years. One aspect of this theory offers that low-cost, less capable products gain a foothold in lower-value applications and rapidly grow to displace current products, solutions or market incumbents as they improve in capability and quality. Examples like mini-mills in steel production and smartphones for computing and communications play out rapidly in the less bureaucratic, less regulated commercial markets. While national security matters warrant a deliberate approach, this conflict shows the power of this bottom-up change and the imminent need for the United States to embrace innovation for future conflicts.
Disruptive technologies have been used out of necessity by Ukrainian forces. The defense of its homeland and protection of its people has stoked the fire of creativity and ingenuity of its defense forces. Examples are everywhere. Crowdsourcing battle damage assessments enabled by visual artificial intelligence has allowed it to improve real-time decision-making about where to move forces and supply. Using low-cost, commercial drones to improve targeting and long-range fire capabilities has advanced standoff capabilities to counter Russian attacks and resupply. Implementing facial recognition capabilities that connect an image to identity serves as a tool of psychological warfare to notify the mothers and fathers of Russian casualties to break through censors and show the real cost to Russia of its aggression. These and more provide insights into how a future war will be fought and how the United States can learn and adapt.
To get there, the Department of Defense should increase and accelerate its investments and experimentation with disruptive capabilities across the entire life cycle of military power to solve real problems. This means opening the door to innovation beyond the effect alone to include the other elements of readiness essential to military strength. After all, what good is a shooter if they are poorly trained or not armed with bullets?
The focus on effects is critical. In fact, there needs to be even more of it—more funding and more speed. Yet it should also broaden its focus, stimulate competition from new entrants and use the newly launched and much improved Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office to drive disruptive innovation from paper and proposals into operations and fielded use across three categories: integrated and automated indications and warnings, robust and dynamic courses of action and contested logistics. These three categories are critical to the U.S. military’s ability to fight and win the next war. Together, they help create an understanding and awareness of the threats in any given environment, develop potential courses of action for the military to respond to these threats and identify the likelihood that an adversary can—and will—disrupt this threat response. Each of these capabilities has strong, relevant and disruptive analogs from commercial technology.
From the Spencer repeating rifle of the American Civil War to the Global Positioning System in the first Gulf War, adopting and advancing innovation in warfare has been a potent force for the United States and its military edge. The difference today is that disruptive technology borne in commercial markets is more pervasive and available to friend and foe alike. When combined with human ingenuity, the power of these technologies is incredible. And when harnessed, it can level the playing field between highly capable and moderately effective. Imagine what it can do when used by a rival with a military as powerful as China.
To leverage the power of these innovations and remain global superpowers, the U.S. government and its allies need to do more than they are doing today—making data more widely available and funding more realistic, focused and durable programs to build upon its existing capabilities and successes.
Logan Jones is the president and general manager of SparkCognition Government Systems (SGS) and has over a decade of national security and defense experience in the United States and globally in which he’s worked extensively with the Defense Department and with commercial defense companies. Jones is the former vice president and founding member of the largest aerospace venture fund and innovation group, Boeing HorizonX.