Innovation is key to continuing U.S. military might, and the Defense Department is working to make the institution more agile and a good partner for private capital, said Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks at the American Dynamism Summit in Washington today.
The United States has a history of innovation that must be nurtured and stoked as the nation faces competition from competitors who want to fundamentally change the rules-based international order that has maintained great power peace since the end of World War II.
China is the competitor with the means and will to “overmatch” the United States, she said. The Chinese government uses “predatory investment strategies, crackdowns on due-diligence companies and business intelligence providers that [venture capitalists] need to make smart bets, overtly forcing tech to comply with political ideologies [and the] use of forced labor, repression and exploitation of religious minorities,” Hicks said.
But Hicks said there’s one advantage the Chinese cannot outmatch, steal or copy — because it’s part of America’s DNA. That is “American ingenuity: our ability to think freely, innovate, change the game, and in the military sphere, to imagine, create, and master the future character of warfare,” she said.
The Defense Department has not always been the easiest customer for new ideas, the deputy secretary said, but officials are working to encourage adoption of these ideas, technologies and procedures. “Our starting position is stronger as a free and open society of blue-sky inventors, doers and problem-solvers,” she said. “We don’t seek to control innovation or make it toe the party line.”
That means outreach to the private sector, Hicks said. DOD was once at the forefront of innovation, investing in technologies that birthed the global positioning system, the internet, new materials and more.
Through the 1970s, DOD was the largest tech investor, but now private sector entrepreneurs are in the lead. “We aim to seed, spark and stoke the flames of innovation,” she said. “And with so much happening outside of DOD, that requires better adopting innovations wherever they add the most military value.”
DOD must keep pace with “a dynamic U.S. private sector that continues to out-innovate the world,” she said.
Still, DOD does invest a lot in innovation. She said DOD’s research and development budget request in 2024 is $145 billion. The procurement request is $170 billion.
Defense is not a small market, and that is just one reason why investors should look at the sector. Another reason is it is the right thing to do, she said. “From day one, Secretary Austin and I have focused on the urgency to innovate,” Hicks said. “We do so with our warfighters foremost in mind, as they stand the watch around the world. Just this weekend, three American soldiers were killed by Iranian-backed militias in Jordan. They made the ultimate sacrifice, and we join their families and loved ones in mourning the loss.
“Because we owe them and every U.S. service member our very best, for three years now we have taken a comprehensive, iterative, warfighter-centric approach to innovation — recognizing we face an accumulation of challenges and barriers, and there is no silver bullet that will lower them all,” she continued. “Along the way, we’ve never wavered from our ultimate objective: delivering safe and reliable, combat-credible capabilities at speed and scale to America’s warfighters — so they can deter aggression and win if called to fight.”
DOD looks to develop a fast-moving cycle that identifies key capabilities and moves them to effective solutions. She called it “a warfighter-defined investment funnel … comprising novel operational concepts, prototyping and experimentation; expeditious acquisition pathways; open doors for newcomers to enter; and a more level playing field.”
The department has in place novel operational concepts for joint warfighting and new processes to incentivize and accelerate promising joint capabilities and experiments, she said. This has sped up the fielding of capabilities by as much as two years.
“To bridge the lab-to-prototype and prototype-to-scale valleys of death, we’re using more flexible acquisition pathways for rapid prototyping, rapid fielding and software development,” she said.
The department has spent more than $35 billion on nearly 200 programs. “They’ve shaved up to six years off [the] transition and delivery timelines for warfighter priorities,” Hicks said.
DOD is easing contracting and reaching out to nontraditional firms, she said. “We also sped [up] how we transition the most promising capabilities to scale by overcoming [the] bureaucratic and cultural barriers that slow us down,” she said.
The department has also stressed ethical artificial intelligence principles and updated DOD policies on the responsible use of autonomous weapon systems, Hicks said.
“Our efforts are fundamentally resetting behavior for defense innovators, program managers, resource leaders and decision-makers,” she said. “And even though it’s collaborative, that kind of disruption can still be uncomfortable.”
Hicks said, “Replicator’s goal is to field thousands of attritable autonomous systems in multiple domains within 18 to 24 months and prove ways to burn down risk and rapidly and safely overcome barriers to scaling. “It’s about showing ourselves — and our adversaries — that DOD can move fast to shape the battlespace and equip our warfighters with what they need.
“We’ve put our heads down, worked with Congress, with the commercial sector and across DOD to deliver,” she continued. “And, today, we are on track to meet Replicator’s goals.”
The key to it is the speed. In the old system, this would have taken the better part of a decade to get the capability in the hands of service members. “To go from start — to fielding inside that two-year cycle is not normal: It’s disruptive,” she said. “But we plan to make it more normal because more speed is essential. This is not the Cold War nor the post-Cold War era. With [China], we are in a persistent, generational competition for advantage, and we have to double down with urgency and confidence.”