At its first public meeting at the Pentagon in early October, the Defense Innovation Board was emphatic about its No. 1 recommendation: The Defense Department should create a new chief innovation officer position. Now Defense Secretary Ash Carter has announced he intends to do just that.
Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on Oct. 28, Carter said he was moving forward with three recommendations from the board, whose members include astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Instagram Chief Operating Officer Marne Levine, Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.
In addition to planning to hire a chief innovation officer, "who will act as a senior adviser to the secretary of defense and will serve as a spearhead for innovation activities," Carter said DOD officials will "increase our focus on recruiting talented computer scientists and software engineers into our force, both military and civilian."
The department will also invest more in machine learning via "targeted challenges and prize competitions...through a virtual center of [excellence] model that establishes stretch goals and incentivizes academic and private-sector researchers to achieve them."
Carter's announcements were the latest in a string of innovation initiatives he has launched in recent years -- reforms that he said are a function of changing technology and the access adversaries have to that technology.
"When I began my own career in physics decades ago, most technology of consequence originated in America," he said. "And much of that was sponsored by government, especially the Department of Defense. Today we're still major sponsors, but much more technology is commercial. The technology base is global, and other countries have been trying to catch up with the breakthroughs that for the last several decades made our military more advanced than any other."
During his tenure at DOD, Carter launched the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUX) program, which now has offices in the Silicon Valley area of California, Boston and Austin, Texas. He also created DIB, the Strategic Capabilities Office and the Defense Digital Service.
And just as Carter's legacy on topics such as combating the Islamic State group, the Taliban and other terrorist groups will be debated for years, his innovation legacy might be equally contested.
"I'm very encouraged by what I see," said retired Marine Maj. Gen. Arnold Punaro, a former staff director for the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Two things that matter in terms of getting anything done in government, particularly in the Pentagon, [are] you've got to have the organizational framework and leadership and you've got to have the budget, and my view is he's put in place both of those."
Punaro told FCW that Carter has made significant technology investments in the fiscal 2017 budget, currently stalled in Congress, and that the fiscal 2018 budget also includes substantial funding for technology. In addition, Punaro believes that DIB, DIUX, DDS and other offices, including the new chief innovation officer position, are organizational structures that will carry DOD forward after Carter's term ends.
Former Pentagon official Paul Brubaker, however, said Carter's efforts do not add up to a substantive reform of legacy systems and procedures or the creation of a culture of innovation.
"Creating an innovation culture is not something you do by fiat," Brubaker told FCW. The former director of planning and performance management in DOD's Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer said Pentagon officials have recognized for years that the acquisition and hiring systems need to be revamped and that DOD needs to tap into centers of innovation around the country.
"We actually tried to put in those [reforms] years ago, and the culture just ate them alive," Brubaker said. "And it's going to continue to eat them alive unless there is some very clear roadmap on how you get from the existing culture to a culture of innovation."
Specifically, he said the roadmap must address the underlying processes that "lie in wait and eat innovative ideas for dinner."
"Unless there is a holistic approach to this, little pockets of innovation within the defense establishment are not going to create the kind of systematic institutional change that's being suggested here," Brubaker added.
He said it will be up to the next administration to establish an innovation culture at DOD -- a process he wishes Carter would have embraced earlier in his tenure.
About the Author
Sean Carberry is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence. Prior to joining FCW, he was Kabul Correspondent for NPR, and also served as an international producer for NPR covering the war in Libya and the Arab Spring. He has reported from more than two-dozen countries including Iraq, Yemen, DRC, and South Sudan. In addition to numerous public radio programs, he has reported for Reuters, PBS NewsHour, The Diplomat, and The Atlantic.
Carberry earned a Master of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School, and has a B.A. in Urban Studies from Lehigh University.