The U.S. private sector innovates like no other. American companies quickly adapt to changing market demands, develop and integrate new technologies at scale, deliver products with exceptional speed and compete to win. This dynamic environment has become the benchmark of success in the modern world, but sadly and needlessly, it is often foreign terrain for the U.S. military.
At the center of the problem is the Defense Department’s antiquated acquisition system, which is hindering our military’s ability to acquire emerging technologies at the speed we need. The system, overseen by Congress and built decades ago, is entangled in a web of bureaucracy and outdated processes. That lack of agility is inhibiting our service members from having and using the superior technology that American companies are pioneering.
Bridging the gap between the private sector and the Pentagon is a crucial national security challenge that lies at the heart of the Defense Innovation Board, which I chair in partnership with other leaders in business, technology and the military.
Over the past year, I’ve spoken with a number of acquisition officers and civilians in the U.S. military. They know the problems better than anyone, yet they have surprisingly limited authority over their budgets and portfolios.
For instance: If they see a need for an AI-enabled data management platform, they might request to move money from one under-performing capability to that new, critical system. But then they wait for approval to proceed. And wait.
If they do get a green light, they must begin a long, cumbersome approval process that can take a year to complete — at that point, the technology may already be outdated.
That’s the problem acquisition officers confront day in and day out, and it’s costing us in the race to equip our troops with the tools they need to keep our country and our allies safe. Solving it requires Congress and the Defense Department to work together.
Recently, the Pentagon sent a legislative proposal to Capitol Hill that would greatly enhance its acquisition authority. The proposal, called the “Rapid Response to Emergent Technology Advancements or Threats,” would allow the military to acquire new capabilities before a final budget is approved by Congress each year. That way, the secretaries of the Air Force, Army, and Navy could fill gaps as they arise, without having to wait on the passage of annual appropriations.
The defense bill passed by the House includes a pilot program aimed at expanding the military’s acquisition authority, but the Senate has a chance to go further, by including a bipartisan amendment that would adopt the Pentagon’s original proposal. It’s a good example of how the Pentagon needs Congress to allow it to move more quickly in adopting new technologies — and when the final bill goes to the floor for a vote, the bipartisan amendment should be part of it.
At the same time, we can do more to empower leaders down the chain of command. Delegating more spending authority to acquisition officials, in addition to the service secretaries, would give the former greater flexibility in delivering the best possible technology and equipment to our service members.
Not every new technological tool proves beneficial, of course. There is always risk — financial and operational — in adopting cutting-edge technologies, but keeping the U.S. military the world’s foremost power requires greater appetite for risk.
And there is an important difference between risk-taking and recklessness. Business leaders support “failing fast” — developing new ideas, testing them, collecting feedback, and quickly determining whether to proceed or start anew.
There is no innovation without trial and error, with each failure serving as a learning experience. The more our military can “fail fast” in the Pentagon, the more we can succeed on the battlefield.
Speeding up the acquisition system would bring an added benefit: strengthening the defense workforce. Providing acquisition professionals with greater authority and agility can help retain and attract the top talent the Department needs. The government can’t compete with Silicon Valley on compensation, so it must do more to compete on mission and opportunity, by giving people the flexibility to use their skills and smarts in dynamic and exciting ways.
Over the years, the Defense Department has had some success bridging the public and private sectors, but there is much more to do. Meeting the challenges of the 21st century will take a more agile, adaptable defense acquisition process steered by a skilled workforce capable of keeping pace with their counterparts in private industry.
With help from Congress, defense leaders can take a page from the private-sector playbook, by “failing fast” and fostering a culture that values speed and innovation over business as usual. All who put their lives on the line for our nation deserve no less.
Michael R. Bloomberg is the founder of Bloomberg LP and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the chair of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Board and the former mayor of New York City. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense or Defense Innovation Board.