DoD carries substantial risk in its oversubscription to major weapon system programs that gradually lose relevance in the time required to develop and deploy these systems. Our asymmetric adversaries are literally innovating rings around the DoD acquisition enterprise at a tiny fraction of the cost. Like it or not, the “little bets” paradigm employed by the bad guys is effectively exploiting the soft underside of the DoD leviathan.
By leveraging the Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) tech base, cave-dwelling terrorists and insurgents can capitalize on a R&D complex that dwarfs the size of the organic DoD R&D enterprise. And while DoD remains fixated on costly and protracted technology programs, you know, those “if this program doesn’t succeed you’re not going to get promoted” programs, the bad guys spread risk by dabbling across a spectrum of potential technology outcomes all on someone else’s nickel.
Mitigating this threat does not mean that DoD should double down on major acquisition initiatives. In fact, that’s exactly what the bad guys want us to do. If DoD goes out and buys a $10 million MRAP vehicle for every $100 IED, it won’t take long for the U.S. treasury to be bled dry. We are in the midst of a fundamental paradigm shift relative to how technology is sourced and deployed in modern military conflicts. Unfortunately, DoD appears to be on the wrong side of history when it comes to this issue.
I am not advocating that DoD eschew forward-looking capability development efforts. If mirroring our asymmetric adversaries means ignoring the possibility of a conventional military threat from an emergent China or a resurgent Russia, then DoD should think twice. What I am saying is that DoD should embrace the little bets concept as a core competency that augments its conventional acquisition practices. Rather than rushing to build an MRAP every time a disruptive innovation appears on the battlefield, DoD should systematically seed a larger cross-section of potential solutions, where exposure to the failure of any one solution is negligible.
The key to a successful deployment of the little bets idea within DoD lies in structuring the R&D enterprise to turn tactical technology failures into strategic technology victories. The DoD acquisition enterprise must orient itself to learn the lessons of small scale technology investments to underwrite large scale acquisition decisions. It goes without saying that we learn more from losing than we do from winning. To remain competitive in the contemporary threat environment, DoD must lower the acceptable cost of failure to drive future innovation spirals. This demands a much tighter coupling of the little bets organizations – like the Joint IED Defeat Organization (JIEDDO) and the Army Rapid Equipping Force (REF) – with the conventional acquisition enterprise.
As an aside, I would argue that the future of major DoD weapon system programs lies in creating the platforms and architectures through which component and sub-system level innovations can be projected. The idea is simple: create modular, scalable, and flexible platforms that support the rapid integration of emerging technologies.