How the DoD can win the great tech race with a new workforce model

Despite innovative initiatives to redesign DoD’s future technology and cyber workforce, the preponderance of its military and civilian personnel structure remains steady, consistent and predictable — all representing a value-based model. Today’s expanding and unpredictable great power competition landscape has much less concern for financial efficiencies, yet more demand for an adaptive and innovative workforce design superior to those who threaten harm to the United States and its national interests. Across today’s threat spectrum, steady means static, consistent is hidebound, predictable is not nimble.

In late 2020, the U.S. Cyberspace Solarium Commission, a coalition of bipartisan lawmakers, completed its report to ultimately inform the National Defense Authorization Act for 2021. While the study offered over 80 recommendations to shape future cyber operation, the prevailing pillars of effort consisted of modernizing government’s structure, organization and workforce while operationalizing cybersecurity collaboration with industry and academia. Progress thus far is certainly encouraging; however, to realize future success in cyberspace, bipartisanship engagements and partnering with commercial entities and academic scholars must remain persistent.

To minimize future national-level cyber crises, the DoD must broaden cyber workforce integration programs with private industry. In parallel, overhauling its approach to recruiting, acquiring, integrating and retaining a formidable inventory of personnel will improve readiness in a highly contested domain. During a recent meeting with Eric Schmidt, the former head of Google’s parent company Alphabet, he stated DoD needs to improve personnel development, align skills against challenges and subsequently improve the talent pipeline.

Can the DoD serve as a SpaceX-like complex while simultaneously defending the homeland and its national interests? In Schmidt’s view, DoD continues to experiment with artificial intelligence, machine learning and other innovative pursuits; however, it does not currently possess the requisite digital talent or organizational structure to sustain technological advancements at scale commensurate with competitors, specifically China. As he put it, DoD does not have a technology problem; it has a technology adoption problem.

Next steps

Unlike the industrial era, where new ideas and developments occurred primarily within government, the preponderance of today’s innovation begins in the private sector. Now is the time for DoD to implement a sanctioned champion-innovator-implementer approach while simultaneously expanding valuable partnerships. In the near term, establishing relationships with industry will sharpen the nation’s technological and innovative edge. Advancing forward, these relationships will further influence actions to overhaul an archaic training and talent management paradigm — all necessary actions needed to ensure DoD avoids applying industrial age practices to solve tomorrow’s problems today.

Champion-private sector

Champions serve as valuable advocates for developing groundbreaking technologies, inspiring higher levels of operational success, and driving organizations to achieve strategic goals. Over the last few years, DoD has experienced significant success in establishing innovation cells and units. During a recent interview with Michael Brown, former CEO of Symantec and current director of DoD’s premier Defense Innovation Unit, he underscored how the organization was successful with National Security Strategy alignment and talent acquisition.

Despite these strengths, DoD’s overwhelming budgetary constraints and dated procurement practices continue to impede innovative developments. In Brown’s view, the ubiquitous program objective ‚emorandum cycle, a DoD term equating to a 5-year funding plan, and categories associated with “color of money” spending restrictions, creates challenges associated with deployment of time-sensitive technologies (e.g., Moore’s Law). In many cases, by the time funding becomes available, it is too late to advance forward with building and scaling innovative efforts. Unlike government spending clauses and long procurement proceedings, commercial entities are not burdened by overly restrictive regulations, which enables them to innovate, scale and deliver war-fighting capabilities to outperform the nation’s adversaries.

Innovator—private-public sector

Over the last couple of decades America has lost its innovative footing to China, specifically in the sphere of artificial intelligence, machine learning and other technologies.

Savvy adventurism by well-funded technology corporations has ignited a long-awaited upshot for American experimentation and innovation. A notable example is SpaceX. During a recent conversation with Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, chief of space operations, United States Space Force, he highlighted how sharing innovative ideas with industry partners led to expedited operational successes, specifically related to SpaceX’s ability to manufacture and launch ISR satellites at an exponentially faster rate compared to DoD. The private-public sector represents a powerful example where industry and government leverage their strengths to overcome weaknesses while producing innovative outcomes.

Implementer—public sector

To serve as a formidable implementer, DoD must invest in developing a training and education program for personnel who maintain and sustain cutting-edge technologies. Relying on industry experts to implement advanced solutions produces short-term wins; however, the lack of sustainment strategies has historically hindered long-term progress. While technology advances at a rapid pace, advanced technology training in DoD does not. As such, the department is left with two options: earnestly invest in developing digital talent and succeed as an implementer or operate in a status quo manner by leveraging industry expertise to fulfill requirements. These options require significant investment, but in the long term, DoD would benefit by serving as its own implementer with a talented and trained digital work force capable of confidently sustaining groundbreaking technologies.

Way ahead

Is the workforce structure engineered to change at a rate commensurate with a rapidly evolving great power competition? No, however, by formally adopting a champion-innovator-implementer model, the DoD has the propensity to fundamentally change future competition with adversaries in an unceasing tech race. With the rapid advancement of artificial intelligence and machine learning, DoD must continue integrating with industry experts, building talent development programs and strengthening sustainable government innovation initiatives — all in the spirit of becoming a stronger nation capable of leveraging superior technology and cyber capabilities.

Air Force Lt. Col. Steven Skipper is a national security affairs fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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