Ashton Carter: The Pentagon Must Think Outside of Its Five-Sided Box

Ashton Carter: The Pentagon Must Think Outside of Its Five-Sided Box

"The U.S. military's excellence is not a birthright. It must be earned again and again in this changing and fiercely competitive world."

Of course, the importance of building these bridges cannot diminish how the Defense Department, particularly at our labs and engineering centers around the country, is innovating technologically by creating technologies from their own military and other scientists, by bringing in technology from without, and by repurposing technologies the Defense Department already has in our vast inventory. Navy labs are developing and prototyping undersea drones in multiple sizes and with diverse payloads – which is important, since undersea warfare is an area of American dominance, and since unmanned undersea vehicles can operate in shallow waters where manned submarines cannot. Our Army labs are working on missile defenses launched from an artillery gun, which can defeat incoming ballistic missiles at much lower cost-per-round than more expensive rocket interceptors. And Air Force labs are pioneering applications for neuromorphic computing, which incorporates hardware, software, and systems inspired by the working mechanisms of the human brain – which might overcome the limitations of current computing architectures and thereby extend our information superiority in air, space, and cyberspace.

Of course, America’s innovative defense industry is a key partner in all these efforts, because the Defense Department does not build anything in the Pentagon. Unlike the Soviet Union, which tried to have the government be its defense industry, the United States has long had success relying on the strengths of our civilian commercial economy.  Today, with more technological innovation occurring in the commercial sector, to continue this success, the Pentagon needs to be able to also identify and do business with companies that might not have been in our traditional defense orbit, and welcome them in.

Meanwhile, with the inspiration of the new Pentagon Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO), the military is also changing and adapting how the Defense Department uses existing platforms and technologies already in our inventory – giving them new roles and game-changing capabilities to confound potential opponents. I created SCO in 2012 when I was Deputy Secretary of Defense, and earlier this year, I lifted the veil on several SCO projects we are investing in, such as the arsenal plane, a new anti-ship capability for the SM-6 missile, and swarming maritime and airborne drones on the sea and in the air.

A prominent tenet of SCO’s work is to spearhead creative and unexpected ways to use our existing missiles and advanced munitions across varied domains. One example is SCO’s project to develop a cross-domain capability for the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). By integrating an existing seeker onto the front of the ATACMS missile, SCO is enabling it to hit moving targets both at sea and on land. With this capability, what was previously an Army missile system for attacking ground targets like tanks will be able to attack ships, projecting power from coastal locations up to 300 kilometers into the maritime domain.

The characteristics of speed and agility in the defense realm, which efforts like DIUx and SCO share, have long been a focus of mine. When I served as Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance, it was imperative that the Pentagon create a “fast lane” to quickly get our troops in harm’s way the tools they needed to accomplish their mission – from mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, to inexpensive aerostat balloons equipped with cameras to help monitor the security of our forward operating bases. Any delay in producing or deploying these technologies would come at great cost, because the longer our troops had to wait for them, the greater the risk was to their lives. So the Defense Department started a Warfighter Senior Integration Group, which was designed to bring together and bring to bear the full weight of department’s senior leadership on addressing our most critical operational needs, and we developed new approaches to rapidly field cutting-edge, much-needed capabilities.

Ultimately, these efforts evolved into what the Pentagon now calls Joint Urgent Operational Needs (JUONs), for tools the military needs right away to fight current wars like our current counter-ISIL and counter-terrorism campaigns, and Joint Emergent Operational Needs (JEONs), for tools we need as soon as possible for a conflict that could start tomorrow, for example in Europe or the Korean Peninsula. This system is far from perfect, but it has injected some badly needed agility into the Pentagon’s notoriously slow bureaucracy. DIUx and SCO build upon this legacy with their focus on quickly meeting the near-term needs of not only today’s warfighters, but also tomorrow’s.

Going forward, all these new long-term investments must be cultivated and allowed to bear fruit.  Uprooting them to protect established, more traditional defense spending will always be tempting in times of tight budgeting. By avoiding that temptation, the payoff will be new weapons systems and warfighting capabilities at our disposal in the coming years and decades which will more effectively deter future conflict.

Operational Innovation:

The notion of thinking differently does not solely apply to how the military develops new technologies and weapons systems. It also applies to how and when they are used. For that reason, technological innovation and operational innovation go hand-in-glove.

Because our military spent the last 15 years confronting the necessity of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, the United States did so to some extent at the expense of maintaining our advantage in full-spectrum warfighting. Meanwhile the world and our potential opponents were not similarly preoccupied. Other nations have honed their conventional warfighting skills, and in some cases have devised new methods aimed at diminishing our advantages and pre-empting our responses, not only by developing high-tech weapons, but also by crafting operational approaches such as hybrid warfare techniques.

For these reasons, the Defense Department is reinvigorating training across the military branches to return to full-spectrum readiness, and re-thinking how we operate to find new advantages against potential adversaries. In the Asia-Pacific, for example, the United States has been modernizing our alliances, strengthening new partnerships, and helping to build a principled and inclusive regional security network to promote conflict prevention, promote stability, and ultimately refute the idea that China’s rise preordains either coercion or conflict. And, in Europe, we have been working with our NATO allies to adapt and write a new playbook for our strong and balanced strategic approach to Russia, one that takes the lessons of history and leverages our alliance’s strengths in new, networked ways in order to counter a new form of challenge from the east with features like cyber and hybrid warfare, integrate conventional and nuclear deterrence, and adjust our posture and presence to promote greater agility and responsiveness. 

More concretely, the Defense Department is revising our actual plans for potential operations themselves. We have fundamentally revised core contingency plans to account for changes in potential adversaries’ capabilities and also to apply innovation to our operational approaches, and incorporate counters to emerging threats such as cyberattacks, anti-satellite weapons, and anti-access, area denial systems. And at the same time that we innovate to counter changing conventional threats, we continue to sustain America’s safe, secure, and reliable nuclear deterrent by recapitalizing our nuclear triad, command and control, and infrastructure.

Overall, our plans are being built to give our chain of command’s most senior decision-makers a greater variety of choices in the face of a greater variety of challenges and potential battlefields whether at sea, in the air, on land, in space, and in cyberspace. Our planners are taking into greater account how to prevail if they have to execute their plan at the same time another contingency is taking place lest they fall into the trap of having only a single plan that presumes their contingency is the only one to face in the world at that time. And, because today’s conflicts are less likely than ever to be confined to neat regional or functional boundaries, our plans now prioritize transregional and transfunctional integration. In sum, the Pentagon has revised all our war plans to ensure we have the agility and ability to win the fights we are in, the wars that could happen today, and the wars that could happen in the future.

Organizational Innovation:

Innovation in technology and operations are necessary, but insufficient, because at the pace today’s world demands, the Defense Department can only succeed  by being an immensely flexible institution that nurtures innovation in all its forms. This requires more innovative organizational structures and practices. As one of the largest organizations in the world, the Defense Department can be bureaucratic, slow-moving, and more comfortable defaulting to the status quo and perceiving that to be “low risk.” Unfortunately, in today’s security environment, the Pentagon cannot afford to be that way. Ensuring primacy in this climate requires the Pentagon to be a place where thinking differently is welcomed and fostered, not where good ideas die just because they happen to be new.

Over the last few years, I have created several entities to help signify and drive innovation throughout the department, such as SCO, DIUx, the Defense Digital Service, and most recently the Defense Innovation Board (DIB). The DIB directly advises me – and will do the same for future defense secretaries. It brings the culture, mindsets, and practices of the technology community to the U.S. military, and consists of some of the country’s top leaders, thinkers, and doers from the private sector and academia.