Army tries to breathe fire into innovation by going straight to the source

The Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps is the most recent military component to solicit ideas from soldiers and their family members in order to spur innovation to better quality of life and improve the service as a whole.

The corps’ Dragon Innovation Program follows in the footsteps of the Air Force’s Spark Tank and Squadron Innovation Program to bring new ideas into the Army. The program gets its name from the Airborne’s mascot, which is a dragon. It is open to the 93,000 soldiers and their families affiliated with the corps.

“People out there have ideas,” said Brig Gen. Robert Ritchie, assistant commanding general of the XVIII Airborne Corps, in a statement. “They see inefficiencies in their everyday lives and they develop solutions. Unfortunately, these ideas are captive to the Army system. Let’s unchain the animal spirits of ideas and let them roam in the wild!”

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The premise of the program is to put out a new challenge every three months for soldiers and their families to try to solve, since they have the most hands on experience with the problem.

“The very first challenge is related to use of ranges, training areas and land writ large,” Col. Joseph Buccino, communications director for the XVIII Airborne, told Federal News Network. “You have to use the resources we have on these installations to build readiness. There are many gripes and inefficiencies within that system. It’s a very centralized system, the range facility management support system is an online system. Then there are other inefficiencies with regard to the way that you go out to a range and sign for the range. We are looking for specific ideas on that.”

The Dragon Innovation Program takes things one step further, however. In addition to assigning challenges, it also has an area on the website where soldiers and their family members can submit any idea that can help the Army.

Buccino said the open-ended section was created last minute, but is already paying off.

“One example is there’s a soldier specialist who is an 88 Mike, which is a wheeled vehicle driver,” he said. “She identified an inefficiency with regard to the transfer of military license from the big Army school, where we certify soldiers to come in and be 88 Mikes. The licensing there doesn’t transfer to the specific unit. Her idea is along the lines of a coordination with the school from the incoming unit for a universal license. The soldier arrives at the unit, has already been trained by the Army on this piece of equipment and is operationally ready to support that unit to combat missions.”

The funding for the innovations and changes come from regular funding streams, and ideas are approved by an innovation council.

Buccino said the time from idea submission to actuality will vary depending on the complexity of the suggestion.

Soldiers will receive awards for their ideas like extra leave and commendations.

The program signals a change in the way leadership interacts with lower ranks.

“Effective leadership is innovative leadership, which is what a culture of innovation requires,” Buccino said. “You’re seeing that across the Army. You can’t steal information, you have to embrace information. You can’t fear good ideas. You have to embrace and encourage and reward good ideas. And that’s what we’re doing with the Dragon Innovation Program.”

The Air Force started a similar program in 2018 when it created the Squadron Innovation Fund. The service divvied out $64 million across its squadrons to invest in innovative ideas proposed by airmen.

“This money is designed to let the commanders on point, who know what their units need best, to test, to experiment, to refine their best tactical ideas. This is about trusting and empowering commanders and your airmen because the nation relies on us to be incredibly innovative as we look to increase our lethality and our readiness,” then Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said.