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Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Keynote Address at the Ash Carter Exchange on Innovation and National Security (As Delivered)

Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you to Stephanie [Carter], and the Special Competitive Studies Project for the invitation — and for bringing us together to celebrate, and advance, the legacy of innovation that Secretary Carter left over more than four decades of incredible contributions to America’s security. 

I was fortunate to work for, or with, Ash Carter throughout the past 30 years. From the 1995 Nuclear Posture Review, when I was a Presidential Management Intern on his Assistant Secretary of Defense staff; to the beginning of his tenure as Deputy Secretary of Defense, where I helped him lead efforts to rebalance our capabilities to the Indo-Pacific; all the way up to this past year, when Secretary Carter generously gave of his time to host me for innovation discussions in Cambridge, or stop in for breakfast at the Pentagon to confer on our ongoing innovation agenda. 

One of Ash’s hallmark phrases, was how he continually encouraged everyone in and around the Pentagon to “think outside our five-sided box.” It was a shorthand for his dedication to innovation, in many areas: our technology, our operations, our organization, and our people.

Now, I could spend all my time up here updating you on the many seeds of innovation that Ash planted that have blossomed at DoD.

Like the B-21 stealth bomber that Ash helped start development on, and that Secretary Austin just unveiled in December.

Or the Strategic Capabilities Office Ash started when he was in this job, which turned the SM-6 interceptor into an offensive anti-ship missile — a big reason why we’re continuing to maximize procurement and grow production of SM-6s.

Or the Defense Innovation Unit, whose new director Doug Beck you just heard from. He was there with Ash from DIU’s earliest days, back when it was DIU-X.

Or the opening of all combat roles to women, which not only expanded the pool of talented people serving and leading across the military services, but has also contributed to high rates of retention in recent years.

But I know if Ash were here in my place, a trip down memory lane wouldn’t satisfy him. He’d want me to focus on what DoD is doing now to innovate so we can accomplish the mission — which he often described as “defending the country and making a better world for our children.” So that’s what I’m here to tell you about. 

America’s DNA is to innovate — Ash knew this as well as anyone. And it has repeatedly enabled us to drive and master the future character of warfare.

In World War II, we retooled our economy on the fly, recruiting captains of commercial industry to exhort their colleagues to help us out-build the Axis powers. Which they did: as one CEO-turned-general later put it, “we smothered the enemy in an avalanche of production.”

In the Cold War — when the Soviets had replicated our production playbook, looking to overwhelm NATO with seemingly endless waves of tanks and troops in Europe — DARPA’s Assault Breaker program changed the game by pioneering the integration of lasers, electro-optical sensors, microelectronics, and more: enabling U.S. forces to strike battlefield targets with pinpoint accuracy. 

In the Gulf War, we showcased more innovations that had been in development for over a decade — like stealth aircraft, and GPS navigation — which were used to breathtaking effect.

In the post-9/11 wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — and Ash played a critical leadership role in this — we drove innovations in technology, procurement, and production: fielding things like MRAPs, aerostats, and ballistic clothing to protect our troops from the scourge of roadside bombs. 

Our innovation pursuits often carried labels specific to their times and origins. The revolution in military affairs. Transformation. Offset strategies. The defense innovation initiative. These are just some of the monikers applied to DoD’s efforts over the decades. 

But no matter the label, all of these efforts shared a simple and compelling proposition: exploit change as an opportunity to add military value. 

Sometimes that change was driven by new technology, but not always. Sometimes the innovation came from new concepts developing around mature technologies, or how DoD bought or built or used its capabilities, or whom we did that with. 

To that point: innovations are often shaped by who’s in the room, and who has a seat at the table. It isn’t just about which tech sectors get R&D dollars. It’s also about having a warfighter-centric culture, and making sure we bring together operators, intel analysts, and technologists routinely and systematically. Because it’s the interaction among these diverse communities that often sparks and catalyzes innovation, and keeps an innovation ecosystem vibrant and fresh and effective.

But before I tell you what we’re doing, it’s important to be clear about why innovation matters for the Department of Defense — because it’s shaped by the strategic context in which we find ourselves. And as our National Security Strategy makes clear, we’re in a new era of strategic competition, and our pacing military challenge is the People’s Republic of China.

Even as we face an acute threat from Russia in Europe, and regional threats like Iran and North Korea, and trans-border challenges like climate change and violent extremist organizations — the PRC is the only strategic competitor with the will and increasingly the capability to remake the international order that has provided so much benefit to so many for so long.

Ash was among those who foresaw and foretold this strategic shift, and he took action to improve America’s standing for the competition that was to come — especially as Deputy Secretary of Defense, when he played a key role in putting meat behind the Obama Administration’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific, and as Secretary of Defense, when he informed the Congress that America was “entering a new strategic era.”

And the implications for U.S. defense were clear to him. In Ash’s words, “our military’s excellence isn’t a birthright. It’s not guaranteed. And we can’t take it for granted in the 21st century — we have to earn it again and again.”

That excellence is vital to deterrence. And I want to be clear that our goal is to deter, because competition does not mean conflict. 

In fact, our greatest measure of success, and the one we use in the Pentagon most often, is to make sure that the PRC leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, “today is not the day” — and for them to think that today, and every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.

Meeting that bar over time, and as the PRC itself modernizes its military, requires us to deliver a combat-credible Joint Force across time horizons — near-term, mid-term, and long-term — capable of deterring, and, if called upon, defeating aggression against the United States, its allies and partners, and our interests. 

And because time and our competitors are not standing still, we cannot stand still either. The PRC is a generational challenge; while it will change over time, it’s not going anywhere. So we’re in a persistent competition for advantage. But we must respond with confidence and urgency, not react with pessimism and panic.

In that context, innovation is a critical tool for achieving our strategic objectives, but it is not a strategy itself. 

We have to take what we are doing tactically — for instance, to address pain points related to security, workforce, and transition across the innovation ecosystem — and link that with what we’re doing operationally — such as improving our ability to deliver logistics and sustainment in a contested environment — and link that with what we’re doing strategically — for example, to ensure that U.S. forces are never in a fair fight, and to preserve the rules-based international order. 

Make no mistake, we need defense innovation in every form — from a combination of new technologies and processes, to new tactics, techniques, and procedures — in order to overcome operational challenges and present dilemmas to those who might threaten us. 

And achieving those goals requires strategic discipline in where and how we innovate — relentlessly guided by the 2022 National Defense Strategy, and our Joint Warfighting Concept — so that our innovations really make a difference for the warfighter. 

That was something Ash never lost sight of. Because while the battlefield of greatest interest may have changed, our ultimate purpose has not.

Ash also believed in hydrating, so give me a moment here…


So, we know why we have to innovate. But what’s the state of innovation in DoD? 

Given the Department’s sheer size, it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s innovation happening every day, in entities both old and new across DoD. You can even see a map of all those entities in the National Defense Science and Technology Strategy, released just today.

But even with a blueprint, at our scale and complexity, learning is slower than it should be. Incentives aren’t necessarily clear or aligned to get the best outcomes. In some pockets the culture is good, but in others, we don’t always foster the right collaboration that lets innovation flourish — and there’s no pre-existing playbook, because there’s no analogue to an organization as large as DoD.

We have plenty of authorities. Some might say we have all the authorities we need, though we don’t use them nearly enough. And I think the average American might say we have plenty of resources. But it’s worth asking: with all these inputs, have we gotten the outputs we need? 

Unequivocally, the answer is: no, not yet. 

That’s partly because, as our strategic competitors today move faster and are more capable than previous competitors, we can never fall victim to thinking we’ve done enough. We should never be satisfied. And in an organization this large, and an ecosystem this complex, we should always be pushing to get out of our own way.

We face several stubborn barriers to innovation, to include: Risk aversion. Workforce gaps. Slow and cumbersome investment processes. Delayed appropriations. And an oversimplified focus on numbers of platforms, and personnel — capacity, for capacity’s sake, rather than capability at capacity. 

Anyone get innovation inhibitor “BINGO” with that list? 


Some of these causes are beyond our control, but it’s also undeniable that others are coming from “inside the house” — within our own Department — which means we all have a responsibility to drive change and support and promote leaders with the courage to think differently. 

Another challenge: innovation has become such a buzzword, that some people mistakenly think it’s just doing something different.

But remember: our definition requires adding military value. So truthfully, if it doesn’t help the warfighter, it’s just innovation theater. 

More broadly, the proliferation of innovation mechanisms and organizations suggests our problem may be “innovation adoption,” rather than “innovation” itself.

There’s greater “supply” of innovation opportunities and ideas today, but demand isn’t keeping pace everywhere we want it to be. And often that’s because of other barriers — bureaucratic, cultural, and sometimes congressional — to reducing investments in old systems and approaches. 

And so, too often over the years, the Pentagon has failed to take the more substantial steps needed to prepare for strategic competition and safeguard our military’s edge. 

But rather than dwell on those failures, we must learn from them and treat them as our opportunity to seize.

Now, Ash Carter was one of DoD’s greatest internal champions of innovation. He mentored many of us here today, and many more who continue to champion innovation throughout DoD, the U.S. government, and beyond. 

And he knew very well what is a cold, hard reality: ultimately, everything we all do to innovate will just be a blip if we cannot change behavior in an enduring way — beyond any of our individual tenures.

That is the task we have before us today: to stand up, solidify, and scale the internal structures that enable innovation to thrive across the Department of Defense — so that innovation doesn’t rely on a single internal champion, but rather, so that everyone is an internal champion for innovation.

Now let me tell you some of what we’ve been doing, across four key areas, to realize that vision: to deliver innovations at scale and speed for the warfighter, and to make sure it all keeps going after we’re gone. 

The first is focused on data and artificial intelligence. Along with compute for the enterprise and at the edge, these are foundational to advancing Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2. 

As Ash knew, JADC2 is a warfighting function enabled by technology, but it’s not itself a single system or technology that we buy. Instead, we’re integrating sensors and fusing data across every domain, while leveraging cutting-edge decision support tools to enable high-tempo operations. And it will make us even better than we already are at joint operations and combat integration.

I won’t reveal everything we are doing in this space, but let me touch on recent progress we’ve made to cement its foundations. 

In May 2021, I issued five DoD Data Decrees, to ensure all DoD data is visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure. 

To help integrate data across applications, systems, and users, we then launched the AI and Data Acceleration initiative, or ADA, named after computing pioneer Ada Lovelace. ADA provides teams of data scientists to every Combatant Command, to work on problems our warfighters find most vexing.

To ensure we have the needed data storage and compute, last year we developed and awarded the Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability contracts.

And a major effort was bringing on a Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Officer, or CDAO -- Dr. Craig Martell, who was Lyft’s head of machine learning before we hired him last year to accelerate DoD’s adoption of data, analytics, and AI from boardroom to battlefield. I know he’s on your next panel, so I’ll let him say more. 

Second, is how we transition from research and development to fielded, concept-derived capabilities. Here, part of the focus is getting the right things transitioned. There’s often talk of the “valley of death” between R&D and production, but if we’re being honest, there should be a valley of death, and probably more than one. 

The fact is, we don’t want to scale every idea. Because — and please don’t shoot the messenger — not all ideas turn out to be good ones. Not all ideas work for the warfighter.

We’ve all met our fair share of “good idea fairies,” but I don’t know any with a 100% success rate. 

Instead, our measure of success should be getting the right things to the right people at the right time, to make a difference in the battlespace. And that requires a bridge from key capability needs to effective solutions — a warfighter-defined investment funnel, if you will.

That funnel requires novel operational concepts, as well as prototyping and experimentation. We then must leverage expeditious acquisition pathways — and you want all those parts to be iterative and always moving fast. Then, whenever something proves valuable, you produce and field it, at scale and speed.

Let me give you an example of how those pieces can come together for the warfighter. 

The Marine Corps is investigating the ability to fire a Tomahawk cruise missile from a Joint Light Tactical Vehicle — basically, a modern-day Humvee. A few reasons why that example matters: We have thousands of Tomahawks, and JLTVs. I won’t say how many exactly. Also, Tomahawks aren’t just land-attack missiles. They can also target ships at sea. 

Now, if you remember World War II, you’ll recall the Marine Corps’ legacy of capturing and holding Pacific islands. And as General Smith hopefully relayed to you earlier, they’ve been designing Marine forces to operate in a more agile, distributed, resilient, lethal, and sustainable way. 

We support that, because it’s consistent with joint warfighting concepts. Our latest budget accelerates the Marines’ Force Design 2030 to field the majority of its novel capabilities and force structure in the Indo-Pacific by 2027. 

So if you think about the firepower that just Marines with Tomahawks and JLTVs could bring to bear — along with airpower, guided missile destroyers, submarines, and more, since we always fight as a joint force — that’s pretty remarkable. It’s an operational concept worth experimenting with, at least.

Meanwhile, proven joint operational concepts have shaped our investments to procure key capabilities — including in DoD’s FY ’24 budget, which significantly grows production capacity for weapons most relevant to deterrence in the Indo-Pacific.

To incentivize more experimentation, and hasten the pathway from concepts to experiments to fielding, we developed RDER, the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve. It’s not a program, nor a fund. Instead, RDER is an internal process that evaluates multi-service capability experiments with promise for advancing joint warfighting concepts.

Those that best contribute to joint needs are funded in our annual budget — at no expense to their components’ other priorities. By rewarding innovation that way, RDER encourages the services and others to collaborate in solving our most pressing joint operational challenges.

In the first RDER sprint that we did, ahead of the FY23 budget, components put forward hundreds of proposals. We identified almost three dozen projects worth pursuing, focused on long-range fires. In December, Congress appropriated over $270 million to fund them this year. The experiments are now underway, and the most successful will quickly transition to components for fielding. 

In terms of leveraging acquisition pathways, we’re benefitting significantly from having new software and Middle-Tier Acquisition Pathways, which help us more rapidly respond to changes in warfighter needs, threats, and technology. 

Compared to traditional acquisition… that’s hard to say… traditional acquisition programs, these pathways are getting better software to the services, faster — such as for the Air Force’s Kessel Run Air Operations Center and SOCOM’s Global Analytics Platform — and they’re accelerating transition to fielding capabilities by three-to-five years: from next-gen squad weapons for Army soldiers and expeditionary wideband SATCOM for Marines, to deep-water wide-area passive sonar arrays for the Navy.

Beyond those pathways, our APFIT initiative, which stands for Accelerate the Procurement and Fielding of Innovative Technologies, is helping rapidly transition capabilities like anti-jam radio links and undersea sensors for mine-hunting. 

And to help bridge a later-stage valley of death, we’ve established a Competitive Advantage Pathfinders, or CAP initiative, which is overcoming bureaucratic and cultural barriers to delivering capability at scale to the warfighter. 

For example, we found that rigid funding and an inability to reprioritize acquisition strategies was preventing the Navy from leveraging new technology for the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile. But with CAP, we aim to speed the delivery of more advanced LRASMs by two years. 

Throughout this process, we’ve been determined to make transition easier, and faster. We could tolerate decades-long timelines in the Cold War, when our main competitor was relatively slow and lumbering. But today, we have to evolve faster than the threats — which means our capabilities must be designed and built to be flexible, adaptable, interoperable, and interchangeable from the beginning. 

Another way we’re shrinking timelines, in some cases from years to months to weeks, is through the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, which Ash leveraged to rapidly field MRAPs in Iraq and Afghanistan. The JRAC stepped up in the COVID pandemic, after Russia invaded Ukraine again, and they’re also working on challenges in the Indo-Pacific.

While the JRAC’s work is remarkable, we don’t want them doing everything for DoD. Instead, we want more of DoD doing what the JRAC does: for the JRAC approach and mindset to be embraced and scaled across the Department. 

Third, we’re driving innovation by expanding the pool of those who work with us. 

To do that effectively, we’re upholding norms of responsible behavior, which sets us apart from our international competitors. One example is artificial intelligence, where we’ve consistently been a global leader in establishing responsible policies for military use of autonomous systems and AI. 

That’s partly because of Ash, who as Deputy Secretary of Defense issued the first DoD Directive on Autonomy in Weapon Systems, in 2012. 

We’ve maintained that commitment as technology has evolved: from adopting ethical principles for using AI, to issuing a Responsible AI Strategy and Implementation Pathway last year. 

And this past January, we updated that directive on autonomy in weapon systems — to help ensure we remain the global leader of not just development and deployment, but also safety.

Additionally, we’re continuing to open more doors to innovators who might want to work with us: from elevating the Defense Innovation Unit, which you just heard about from Doug, to standing up the Office of Strategic Capital — a new effort Secretary Austin announced last fall. That’s designed to identify gaps in private capital investment that could hamper our access to critical technologies, and partner with private capital to fill those gaps.

For those who’ve never worked with us before, we now have an online one-stop-shop,, where anyone can go to connect with innovation pathways across DoD — whether you’re from business and industry, research and academia, or the military and DoD itself. 

Another way we’re expanding the pool is by partnering with allies and others — including through AUKUS, our collaboration with the United Kingdom and Australia on not only conventionally-armed, nuclear-powered submarines, but also on many more advanced capabilities.

The last area I’ll mention today may be the most complex but important aspect of driving innovation in DoD and making it stick — improving our innovation culture and talent management. 

Part of that is being more vocal about learning from potentially unsuccessful experiments — like the Air Force’s prototype ARRW hypersonic missile. 

Some tests worked. Some tests didn’t. But even then, we still learned a lot of useful things from ARRW — which we’re applying to the many other hypersonic missiles we’re developing and procuring across DoD. 

A year from now, we might say the same about some of those RDER projects I mentioned earlier. Not all will be fit for fielding at scale. But that’s not a bad thing. The bad thing would be wasting taxpayer dollars to field everything, because we were afraid to admit that some had failed. 

We have to embrace the fact that being truly innovative requires a willingness to fail, and learn from failure, and try again. 

Driving that cultural change takes leadership from the top, and Secretary Austin and I are both committed to it. But we can’t forget that everyone has to do their part. 

We also cannot forget that people will always be the engine for innovation. 

Ash’s Force of the Future initiative helped spark a renewed focus on DoD talent management, but he knew it would fall on those who followed him — his successors’ successors’ successors, as he often said — to tend the flame, stoke the fires, and finish the job. 

To that end, we’ve recently hired DoD’s first-ever Chief Talent Management Officer to help lead and drive the Department in identifying, recruiting, and cultivating world-class talent across our enterprise. 

We’re especially focused on adapting our talent management systems to the unique demands of the cyber workforce, and aim to do the same for software, data, and AI professionals.

And one of my personal priorities for this year is to improve how we attract and retain a world-class workforce that’s strong, empowered, and well-equipped: from expanding our applicant pool, to shrinking time-to-hire, to yes, fixing our computers.

None of these are silver bullets — all address different hurdles to accelerating innovation and delivering capabilities faster and at scale to the warfighter, while also maintaining our accountability to the American people we defend.

At the same time, we can’t do it all on our own. We do need help from Congress — to end the cycles of continuing resolutions, pass on-time appropriations, and help enable smooth and secure transitions to future capabilities. 

I know we ultimately have what it takes to come out ahead in the competition for the 21st century — and over the last two-plus years I’ve served as Deputy Secretary of Defense, I’ve seen countless reasons why, both inside and outside the Pentagon, as I’ve spent time engaging with America’s dynamic innovation ecosystem: 

With university researchers in California who are working on everything from climate and sustainability to space and autonomy.

With biotechnologists in Boston who are engineering novel medical treatments.

With innovators in Indiana who are driving forward breakthroughs on everything from hypersonics to semiconductors.

With commercial tech entrepreneurs in Austin, Texas, who are using 3D printing to break the mold of how we maintain aircraft and other mechanical systems.

With electrical engineers and engine designers in Detroit, who are figuring out how to make our power grids more secure and our military vehicles more energy efficient.

And with talented personnel from DIU, SCO, DARPA, CDAO, and plenty of other DoD acronyms I won’t bother throwing at you today. 

Like me, and many of you, these innovators love rolling up their sleeves to solve a wicked problem. And they’re eager to lend their expertise to help solve the biggest challenges we face, for the good of our country and the world.

They are some of the many people that a former Secretary of Defense envisioned in October 2016, when he came to my former think tank, CSIS, to give a speech just a little bit longer than this one…


…about all his work to drive innovation in DoD. 

As he said that day, “the next wave of innovation [is] only just beginning. We probably don’t even know yet the names of the people who will make it a reality. More likely than not, it won’t be by me or anyone from my generation. Instead, it’ll be the generation that comes after. … They’re the ones who will end up reinventing and changing anew how we will deter, fight, and win wars in the future. Our job is to give them the foundation, the right kind of Pentagon to help them succeed: one that’s more agile and innovative than ever before.”

That foundation is stronger because of Ash Carter. And we’re committed to making it ever stronger still. Thanks to the work of many of you, I know we will.