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Rapporteur: Julian Waller
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Preparing for future threats is a vital concern for US strategists. Innovation is one way to confront the threats we may face in the future, but achieving innovation presents organizational, cultural, decisionmaking, and technological challenges. To help strategists and policy-makers navigate these obstacles, CNA’s National Security Seminar (NSS) convened three experts to share their perspectives from their service at different offices within the Pentagon: General James T. Conway (US Marine Corps, ret.), the 34th Commandant of the Marine Corps; Dr. Jamie M. Morin, former Director of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) at the Department of Defense; and Dr. Francis G. Hoffman, Distinguished Research Fellow at National Defense University, who was instrumental in authoring the 2018 National Defense Strategy (NDS). The discussion, moderated by CNA’s Dr. Carter Malkasian, was divided into two parts: the first identified obstacles to innovation, and the second looked at how to overcome those obstacles. The event was recorded and is available online.

Obstacles to innovation

Each speaker described various challenges and barriers to innovation, found both in the Department of Defense itself and within the wider defense industrial establishment. 

General Conway underscored that innovation must contribute to the overall effectiveness of the joint force; must be feasible, interoperable and deployable across theaters; and must be timely—it cannot struggle through an endless development process. Proposals for innovation should be vetted against these standards. He noted that the barriers to innovation can be entirely legitimate—like “wickets” that must be passed through to ensure a project’s usefulness. He provided examples of large quantities of money being expended on poorly conceived innovation that failed either to come to fruition or to be useful to the force. General Conway, overall, underlined the need for practicality in the face of the inherent uncertainty involved in innovation.

Dr. Morin provided a theoretical framework to understand the primary bureaucratic and organizational challenges to innovation, illustrating the complexity and suboptimal outputs resulting from multiple layers of principal-agent problems that occur both hierarchically through the department as well as within the interactions of different service branches and offices. Each organizational unit, as well as each level of decision-making authority and task execution, has their own incentive structures and longstanding priorities that may conflict with higher level, mission-oriented goals for innovation. The focus on long-term development and acquisition means that commitments can last for generations, entailing significant status quo bias and risk aversion—which are coupled with similar dynamics playing out in the military-industrial complex. He also noted the vital role of the US Congress as a key exogenous factor with a regular changing management problem, such that programmatic appropriations often fall victim to iterated distrust and conflicting ways of thinking about strategic goals.

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  • Pages: 3
  • Document Number: CCP-2021-U-030946-Final
  • Publication Date: 10/1/2021