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DOD Innovation Speed Must Increase to Modernize

Aug. 7, 2020 | BY TERRI MOON CRONK , DOD News

The Defense Department must be more innovative and act faster in its pursuit of putting new technology in warfighters' hands, the director of Defense Innovation Unit said.

Speaking on a panel at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado yesterday, Michael Brown said while the 5-year-old DIU has been successful since former Defense Secretary Ash Carter stood it up in 2015, more needs to be done.

DIU is a DOD organization Carter founded to help the U.S. military make faster use of emerging commercial technologies. 

"I feel like we're just scratching the surface," Brown said, while adding that DIU has accomplished a lot in five years. "We probably influence about $500 million worth of defense procurement. Big number in absolute terms, but … what defense buys is probably [up to] $400 billion a year. Depending on the year, we're a small drop in that bucket."

Employee shows a 3-D printed headband.
3D Headband
Norfolk Naval Shipyard Technology and Innovation lab team member James Klein displays innovative 3-D printed headband from the T&I Lab's 3-D printer.
Photo By: Aldo Anderson, Navy
VIRIN: 200604-N-SY521-992M

To energize the flow of commercial technology into the Pentagon — the purpose of DIU — DOD needs to do a lot of things to make it easier for successful entrepreneurs who have the creativity, and vision and initiative to be successful with DOD, he said.

"But we've got to increase the scale of this effort because [of] the game-changing technologies that we face in competition with China, where we need to make investments: artificial intelligence, cyber autonomous systems, biotechnology — the list goes on," Brown said.

DIU is ready to pick up the challenge, he added, but it needs to happen across the country to really take advantage of the innovations, he said. 

"We're not moving in government at an agile pace that reflects the nature of the competition. It's about speed," the DIU director said. "When we have successful prototypes that we've done, it's difficult for the budgeting process to catch up and the services to catch up."

Many of the technologies that DIU wants to prototype are not developed yet, he said, adding, "We need to be quick on our feet to be able to prototype, test in military application, and then have a rapid uptake to get those vendors into production."

Blackhawk flies over Fort McCoy, Wisc.
Blackhawk Flight
A U.S. Army UH-60 Blackhawk flies over Fort McCoy, Wisc., during Combat Support Training Exercise 86-19-04, Aug. 19, 2019. CSTX 86-19-04 is a Combat Support Training Exercise that ensures America’s Army Reserve units and soldiers are trained and ready to deploy and bring capable, combat-ready and lethal firepower in support of the Army and our joint partners anywhere in the world.
Photo By: Army Spc. John Russell
VIRIN: 190819-A-DR075-211M

We have to change what is now about a two-year process, he said, if we want to have the flexibility to incorporate the most innovative technology. 

"That could happen with bigger budgets that are focused on innovation; it can happen by trying to speed up that process," Brown noted. 

DOD now has the variety of authorities to tailor the contracting instrument to what we're buying, he said. 

"But the speed is now all about the budgeting process. And that requires work with Congress."

"We have to develop a relationship that involves trust so that there is more budget flexibility," he added.

To move faster, DOD must categorically reject that two years is required to agree on the war-fighting concept and get Congress to approve it, Brown said, adding, "That's too slow in a competition with China."

National Guard members conduct a demonstration.
Group Photo
Members of the Massachusetts National Guard's Command Team receive a demonstration at Joint Base Cape Cod, Mass., on the use of commercial quadcopters from the Defense Innovation Unit during Operation Patriot Crucible in August 2019.
Photo By: Army Sgt. 1st Class Jamie Gaitan
VIRIN: 191023-A-JK179-246M

In addition to speeding up the budget process, "[We] need to be bolder in terms of our experimentation," Brown said. "The world is moving way too fast in the technologies that are commercial ... In the commercial world, we really can't wait for that, or we're going to be behind in terms of what we're delivering to warfighters."

DOD must be given more flexibility to experiment, and then use the commercial sector where it can inspire much more competition and let the taxpayer dollars stretch further, Brown said.  

"This is going to be a bright spot in an environment where the defense budgets are flattening," he added.