DoD Initiative Crowdsources U.S. Military Competitive Advantage

Nov. 14, 2016 | BY Cheryl Pellerin , DOD News

Inspired by Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s innovation initiatives, a think tank report about Air Force innovation and a recently released list of United Kingdom defense challenges, officials in the Defense Department’s Office of Strategy and Force Development decided to crowdsource elements critical to retaining the U.S. military’s competitive advantage.

Mara E. Karlin, deputy assistant secretary of defense for strategy and force development, leads the office in a range of efforts that guide Defense Department analysis and review, including, among other things, assessing future national security challenges, developing long-term competitive strategies and force planning scenarios, and coordinating global and internal policy planning.

The office also is the lead for policy analysis and advice to DoD senior leadership on developing U.S. forces, assessing capabilities, and allocating resources to support the defense strategy.

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After the crowdsourcing idea arose from her reading and research, Karlin said, she worked with some of her counterparts, including Steve Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, and Army Brig. Gen. Randy George, deputy director for regional operations and force management on the Joint Staff. “We've been working across the department to launch this crowdsourcing initiative,” she added, “focused on what we think are key operational challenges that are animating how we think about the changing character of war.”

Changing Character of War

On Nov. 2, the department released an article outlining the crowdsourcing initiative and detailing the operational challenges to be addressed and the submission process for papers that are no longer than four pages. The deadline is Nov. 28 at 5 p.m. EST.

Karlin said the key areas for crowdsourcing include “how we're thinking about counter power projection writ large -- there are ways of thinking about power projection, ways of thinking about how we're establishing our battle networks, how we're seeing technology changing our ability to make decisions, and how we can think about crowdsourcing within this.”

The deputy assistant secretary added, “A lot of key changes are happening quickly and in ways that are less traditional than we're used to, so we've identified that handful of areas to help us ensure that we're clear on the operational challenges we see over the next 20 years and that all of the folks who are interested in those ideas also see them.”

Karlin said she and her team want to hear from anyone who has a good idea.

“The ideas have to be grounded in some practicality, so the brilliant idea that costs many billions of dollars probably won’t make it,” she added. “But for smart thinkers who are really examining these challenges who propose that we think about operational concepts differently, that we think about a type of technology differently or force structure differently -- that would all be very welcomed.”

Evaluating Ideas

After the submissions are received, she said, a team whose members have experience in policy; acquisition, technology and logistic; and Joint Staff operations will sequester themselves for two weeks and review the papers.

“They have a couple of different metrics that they will look through while they evaluate the proposals,” Karlin explained. “They'll then narrow them down, and a few weeks later, the top proposers will come in and brief some of us.”

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After that, the team will speak about the proposals with Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva.

At a minimum, Karlin said, the deputy secretary and the vice chairman are willing to hear the proposals.

“Both of them have led a number of initiatives to try to spur innovation within the department,” she added. “Their war-gaming initiative that they've written about has helped inspire a culture where folks realize it's OK to test all sorts of ideas, it's OK to fail here so that we don't fail out there, and I think that disposition is important for efforts like this.”

For any good ideas, Karlin said, her team will be sure to present them to department officials who are most familiar with the addressed issues.

“If someone comes forward with an interesting way of using technology differently, a certain capability, that's one of the reasons that we have someone like Steve Welby co-chairing this initiative,” she said. “We can talk to the Strategic Capabilities Office. We can talk to planners at the combatant commands to see how they might use this technology. So we want to ensure that we talk to multiple people who would be able to approach this issue from different perspectives.”

Winning Submissions

“If [the ideas] make sense, if they have an interesting operational concept that seems to resonate with how we're thinking about these challenges, then we absolutely hope to work them into the system,” Karlin said.

There’s no extra money for the projects, she noted, but depending on the proposal, the department has several processes for funding good ideas in technology and in operational concepts.

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“The key is making the argument that the money we have should go toward this,” Karlin said, “and for a smart, thoughtful idea, I think that's an argument that can absolutely be made and the way the department does its entire budget process is predicated on that.”

The deputy assistant secretary said that her team is hoping to do “a pretty quick turn, so our plan is that we will have notified folks who've submitted within a few weeks.”

Karlin said this crowdsourcing effort will be the first of other initiatives to try to spur discussions with those who think differently inside and outside the department.

“You'll note that this was an unclassified effort, and that was really important to us,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that we weren't just talking within [the DoD] bubble.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)