This commentary was originally published on War On The Rocks
“It’s about the people, stupid!” If James Carville were advising the Department of Defense on its approach to modernization and innovation, he might well utter these words to anyone willing to listen with the same sense of exasperation with which he uttered his original admonishment to Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign. Since 2014, the Department of Defense has been searching for an adequate and comprehensive strategy to address the dwindling superiority gap between the United States and pacing competitors like Russia and China. Although some very recent efforts are promising, most of the attempts to develop a strategy have centered on finding innovative ways to bring technology into the Department of Defense. What was true in 2014 is still true today: The United States is facing an unprecedented number of national security challenges related to cutting-edge technology and it lacks a unified strategy to address them. As the Defense Department continues to grope for technological solutions to strategic problems, its most critical mistake has been to confuse past with prologue. Even as it continues to organize against technology-development efforts, the Department of Defense has thus far failed to realize that historical approaches centering on specific technological innovation are no longer feasible. The world has changed too dramatically. The Defense Department no longer dominates and directs cutting-edge basic or applied research, and the United States cannot get that world back. It’s not just the private sector with which the department stands in competition either. Innovation, ideas, and competition have gone global. In a world that is rapidly changing and evolving, a new strategy is required that recognizes the limits of the old paradigms that are anchored in revolutionary technologies. Given the world in which we all now live, any comprehensive strategy, if there is to be one, should center on cultivating and developing that critical resource from which all other capabilities and strategies are derived: people.
In order to better understand where current efforts are coming up short, it’s worth examining the numerous approaches that have surfaced. Each focuses on pursuing next-generation technologies to assure U.S. military superiority. One dominant theory might be best summarized as “buy not build,” which seeks to capitalize on the disproportionate spending on research and development that occurs in the private sector. This theory becomes considerably more attractive when one considers that the overlap between technologies that are critical to the private sector and those critical to the Defense Department is arguably bigger than ever before. As a result, this theory espouses that the department should learn from private sector counterparts and capitalize, literally, on the work already being done. This theory has been successfully adopted by organizations like the Defense Innovation Unit and AFWERX to leverage commercially successful technology for defense needs. Another prominent theory is that the Defense Department needs to be chasing high-impact technologies that will change the very nature of war itself, devoting resources and manpower to being the first to develop and leverage new, transformative technology. In recent years, AI, quantum computing, and hypersonic missiles have been anointed as the next in a long line of technologies that will fundamentally alter modern notions of war and help obviate the human toll of this most dangerous endeavor. This is the work of organizations like the Joint AI Center and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and can best be described as a “get there first” approach. Being first, as in the case of the atomic bomb, or at worst concurrent, as in the case of the use of ironclad warships at the Battle of Hampton Roads, prevents any other nation from enjoying an unchecked military advantage without a matching offset. Another theory is to simplify the acquisitions process in order to increase competition and innovation by increasing the pool of companies that the Defense Department does business with. This requires reforms to the Federal Acquisition Regulation and has been exemplified by the relatively recent rise of Other Transaction authorities and their permutations (e.g., Commercial Service Offerings). These tools are designed to circumvent or “short-circuit” the regulations-based system of contracting with the Defense Department to make doing business easier for a broader spectrum of commercial vendors. This theory of business and regulatory reform might best be summarized as “get there faster,” as it emphasizes cutting bureaucratic red tape and favoring speed over process to make sure the Department of Defense gets access to critical commercial technologies that it needs to maintain dominance. All of these theories of modernization and reform are necessary, but ultimately insufficient. The work being done by every organization throughout the defense modernization and innovation enterprise is critically important and continues to break down barriers between the warfighter and the technology that they need to win the day. However, even in their aggregate, they do not constitute a strategy capable of fundamentally shifting the theater of competition in the Defense Department’s favor. In short, as others have already observed, the United States no longer lives in an age when technology itself can constitute a strategy.
A human capital-centered strategy allows for significant advantages compared with other theories on how to ensure that the United States maintains a global competitive advantage. First, human capital is a hedge against any single technology. Investing in building a deep bench of talented technologists and entrepreneurs who are capable of working with the Department of Defense enables a reactive capability to changing threats or technological advances amongst U.S. competitors that a technology-focused approach does not. Human capital provides security in the event that the Defense Department’s technological investments are wrong or are made obsolete at some point in the future. Second, human capital emphasizes an American competitive advantage over the pacing competitors of the current moment. America’s competitive advantage against Russia and China is the creativity of its people and the democratic processes that allow those people to contribute to the nation. China’s introduction of “civil military fusion” into its defense strategy highlights the need to think beyond the confines of acquisitions. Such a program of directed civil-military fusion is only possible in a highly authoritarian state, and likely means that China will be able to more easily hijack the new ideas and technological discovery of its citizens for prescriptive defense purposes. To combat this the Department of Defense ought to leverage the talent that the it is currently only tapping into in the paltriest of ways, capitalizing on the diversity of thought that is the hallmark of the U.S. democratic system. Third, with increasingly urgent domestic priorities, it is unlikely that the United States will return to the time when the Department of Defense was the single biggest source of research and development capital in the United States. Further, the Defense Department will never be able to successfully import research and development from the private sector at scale due to the increased costs associated with acquisition of private technology and intellectual property. Engaging the human capital that now carries out this discovery mission throughout American society is a more efficient and effective way to operate in this new world. The Pentagon will need to provide the right incentives as it engages with these new sources of civilian talent. The Department of Defense ought to treat people, and not just those wearing its nation’s uniform, like a strategic resource and not as interchangeable parts of an industrial machine.
Human capital has always been the Defense Department’s most critical resource. After World War II, the United States made a strategic evaluation that nuclear capabilities would be the dominant technological advancement of the 20th century, but the real strategic bet hinged on the talent of American and Allied nuclear scientists, including recent refugees, many of whom had no government ties before the start of the Manhattan Project. In essence, the bet made by the United States was not on the technology itself, but that its people were the best in the world. It was the work of these scientists that allowed America to maintain nuclear dominance well beyond the Manhattan Project and the general introduction of nuclear weapons. It may be true that a technological development has significant implications for a period of time, but modern history has demonstrated time and again that the ability to maintain competitive advantage centers on a nation’s ability to develop new capabilities and address emerging threats across time and space. This is the unique, and strategic, advantage that a human capital-centered strategy enables. In the modernization equation, human capital is the constant variable that will be required for any current or future strategic approach, and therefore should be the dominant consideration when approaching the question of against what the United States should anchor its efforts and resources. The challenges that are facing the Department of Defense are broad and asynchronous and require a strategy that allows for the strategic flexibility to address both today’s challenges and tomorrow’s.
If the United States doesn’t “get there first,” how will it react and adapt to that new reality? If the United States can’t “buy not build” everything that it needs, how will it fill the capability gaps that will, inevitably, remain? Will there ever be a system of business processes that allows the United States to “get there fast” enough in an age of digital revolution? Although each technology-based theory currently employed is necessary, they do not assure future victory because they largely ignore the precious commodity most underutilized by the Department of Defense: human capital. A human capital-focused strategy for defense modernization is not just additive — it serves as a hedge against the strategic uncertainty innate to all the others. All other theories assume the strategic flexibility of a talent pool that the Defense Department has named, the National Security Innovation Base, but is still failing to meaningfully access. Sacrificing vital investments in people, the fountainhead of American innovation and creativity, for improved processes or to exclusively fund technological wonders that will be outdated almost immediately after development, is a critical error. In the past, the United States employed technology as the mantric answer to all questions related to maintaining superiority in an increasingly multi-polar world. In an age where ideas and technologies go global at the press of a button, the department’s old incantations are insufficient. At best, technology, by itself, is an outdated and incomplete answer to a barely understood question. A national defense strategy focused on people, both inside and outside the Department of Defense, doesn’t just complete the answer to our great national questions. It is the answer.
Morgan Plummer is the managing director of the National Security Innovation Network, an office within the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering. Prior to his current role at the Defense Department, he served as a senior defense official in the Barack Obama administration and on the immediate staffs of the deputy secretary of defense, under secretary of the U.S. Army, and undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness. In this latter role, he led a team responsible for the development of recommendations for Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s Force of the Future initiatives. Prior to joining the Obama administration, Morgan served on active duty in the U.S. Army for almost 12 years. His views are his own and do not necessarily represent those of the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering or the Department of Defense.
The National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) mission is to “build networks of innovators that generate new solutions to national security problems.” NSIN is headquartered in Arlington, Va., and has regional offices in 11 commercial innovation hubs throughout the United States. Through its headquarters, regional hubs and embedded university partnerships, NSIN builds a national network of innovators and delivers programming that solves real-world, Department of Defense problems through collaborative partnerships with nontraditional problem solvers within the academic and early-stage venture communities.
Image: U.S. Air Force (Photo by Senior Airman Madeline Herzog)