Despite the clear and present danger of threats from China and elsewhere, there’s no agreement on what types of adversaries we’ll face; how we’ll fight, organize and train; and what weapons or systems we’ll need for future fights. Instead, developing a new doctrine to deal with these new issues is fraught with disagreements, differing objectives and incumbents who defend the status quo.

Yet, change in military doctrine is coming. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks is navigating the tightrope of competing interests to make it happen — hopefully in time.

There are several theories of how innovation in military doctrine and new operational concepts occur. Some argue new doctrine emerges when civilians intervene to assist military “mavericks,” e.g., the Goldwater-Nichols Act. Or a military service can generate innovation internally when senior military officers recognize the doctrinal and operational implications of new capabilities, e.g., Rickover and the Nuclear Navy.

But today, innovation in doctrine and concepts is driven by four major external upheavals that simultaneously threaten our military and economic advantage:

  1. China delivering multiple asymmetric offset strategies.
  2. China fielding naval, space and air assets in unprecedented numbers.
  3. The proven value of a massive number of attritable uncrewed systems on the Ukrainian battlefield.
  4. Rapid technological change in artificial intelligence, autonomy, cyber, space, biotechnology, semiconductors, hypersonics, etc., with many driven by commercial companies in the U.S. and China.

The U.S. Defense Department’s traditional sources of innovation are no longer sufficient by themselves to keep pace. The speed, depth and breadth of these disruptive changes happen faster than the responsiveness and agility of our current acquisition systems and defense-industrial base. However, in the decade since these external threats emerged, the DoD’s doctrine, organization, culture, process and tolerance for risk mostly operated as though nothing substantial needed to change.

The result is that the DoD has world-class people and organizations for a world that no longer exists.

It isn’t that the DoD doesn’t know how to innovate on the battlefield. In Iraq and Afghanistan, innovative, crisis-driven organizations appeared, such as the Joint Improvised-Threat Defeat Agency and the Army’s Rapid Equipping Force. And armed services have bypassed their own bureaucracy by creating rapid capabilities offices. Even today, the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine rapidly delivers weapons.

Unfortunately, these efforts are siloed and ephemeral, disappearing when the immediate crisis is over; they rarely make permanent change at the DoD.

But in the past year, several signs of meaningful change show the DoD is serious about changing how it operates and radically overhauling its doctrine, concepts and weapons.

First, the Defense Innovation Unit was elevated to report to the defense secretary. Previously hobbled with a $35 million budget and buried inside the research and engineering organization, its budget and reporting structure were signs of how little the DoD viewed the importance of commercial innovation.

Now, with DIU rescued from obscurity, its new director drives the Deputy’s Innovation Working Group, which oversees defense efforts to rapidly field high-tech capabilities to address urgent operational problems. DIU also put staff in the Navy and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command to discover actual urgent needs.

Furthermore, the House Appropriations Committee signaled the importance of DIU with a proposed fiscal 2024 budget of $1 billion to fund these efforts. And the Navy has signaled, through the creation of the Disruptive Capabilities Office, that it intends to fully participate with DIU.

In addition, Deputy Defense Secretary Hicks unveiled the Replicator initiative, meant to deploy thousands of attritable autonomous systems within the next 18 to 24 months. The initiative is the first test of the steering group’s ability to deliver autonomous systems to warfighters at speed and scale while breaking down organizational barriers. DIU will work with new companies to address anti-access/area denial problems for these drones.

Replicator is a harbinger of fundamental DoD doctrinal changes as well as a solid signal to the defense-industrial base that the DoD is serious about procuring components faster, cheaper and with a shorter shelf life.

Finally, at the recent Reagan National Defense Forum, the world felt like it turned upside down. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin talked about DIU in his keynote address and came to Reagan immediately following a visit to its headquarters in Silicon Valley, where he met with innovative companies. On many panels, high-ranking officers and senior defense officials used the words “disruption,” “innovation,” “speed” and “urgency” so many times, signaling they really meant it and wanted it.

In the audience were a plethora of venture and private capital fund leaders looking for ways build companies that would deliver innovative capabilities with speed.

Conspicuously, unlike in previous years, sponsor banners at the conference were not incumbent prime contractors but rather insurgents — new potential new primes like Palantir and Anduril.

The DoD is awake. It has realized new and escalating threats require rapid change, or we may not prevail in the next conflict.

Change is hard, especially in military doctrine. Incumbent suppliers don’t go quietly into the night, and new suppliers almost always underestimate the difficulty and complexity of a task. Existing organizations defend their budget, headcount and authority. Organization saboteurs resist change. But adversaries don’t wait for our decades-out plans.

Congress and the military services can support change by fully funding the Replicator initiative and DIU. The services have no procurement budget for Replicator, and they’ll have to shift existing funds to unmanned and AI programs.

The DoD should turn its new innovation process into actual, orders for new companies. And other combatant commands should follow what INDOPACOM is doing.

In addition, defense primes should more often aggressively partner with startups.

Change is in the air. Deputy Defense Secretary Hicks is building a coalition of the willing to get it done. Here’s to hoping it happens in time.

Steve Blank is a co-founder of the Stanford Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation. He previously served on the Defense Business Board.

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