In March 1862, a civilian engineer named Charles Ellet wrote a letter to the United States War Department outlining the use of the bow-installed ram as a weapon in naval river operations against the Confederacy. Amid rapid advances in telegraph communication systems, coordinated artillery strikes and railroad logistics, Mr. Ellet was recommending a weapon system employed in the Peloponnesian Wars over 2,000 years prior. Secretary of War Edward Stanton was nevertheless persuaded by Ellet’s logic. In just two months the War Department converted nine commercial steamers with reinforced bows and commissioned the “U.S. Army Ram Fleet.” Stanton also appointed Ellet the Fleet’s “developer-commander,” charged with designing its ships, refining their tactics, and leading its first engagement. This first engagement was a rout and resulted in seven Confederate ships captured or sunk. Soon thereafter, the Confederates adopted the ram as well.
This episode in military history demonstrates the importance of effective capability development and procurement to such success. Ellet’s ships would probably never have weighed anchor without the latitude inherent in War Department’s procurement regulations that allowed Ellet and his fellow developers to engage directly with end users, test his ship’s designs, and then field it quickly.
The open procurement regimes of Edward Stanton have transformed into a virtual moat around the Pentagon. This fact is not lost on his modern-day equivalent. As recently as December 4, 2021, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin voiced concerns about the problems caused due to impediments facing developers attempting to partner with the DoD.
“Let’s face it: for far too long, it’s been far too hard for innovators and entrepreneurs to work with the department,” He said at the Reagan National Defense Forum. “The barriers for entry into this effort — to work with us in national security — is often too steep, far too steep.”
The DoD has not made enough changes to the procurement process to adapt. Opportunities to experiment with technology before undertaking risky and expensive development phases with cumbersome oversight remain out of reach to most American defense developers. Capability development is only further inhibited by prescriptive testing and operational schedules, still a non-negotiable condition of developing technology for the DoD, which tend to discourage iterative refinement and leave innovators vulnerable to premature cuts by risk-averse defense procurement leaders.
The DoD should act now to integrate two tools into its development and procurement frameworks and create open software architecture kits to support the wider implementation of the tools. The first is digital-twin design, an approach anchored in building and testing virtual models of complex hardware and IT systems. As industry leaders like Microsoft and IBM have known for some time now, virtual digital twins promote fast, iterative design and allow for thousands of experimental trials. The upshot is not only a speedier, more transparent design process but also a development dividend akin to “found money”— namely, opportunities for integration with mature technology already in use and unanticipated uses of the technology in design.
The second, complementary tool is data analytics. Large-scale commercial enterprises now regard everyday use of data analytics as a matter of course. But a little piecemeal investment in the near term would yield near-term results, particularly in defense capabilities development. Such “low-hanging fruit” might include, for example, new opportunities for end-user testing of platforms in development, sourced from analytics- and AI-enabled mining of the DoD’s current digital training calendars and training management systems used by operational forces. Access to early-stage feedback will assist in de-risking the development of these new solutions by allowing the developers to know that their solutions are gaining acceptance with operational units. All service branches currently have digital systems end users directly input the operational requirements their units are responsible for executing, their phase of operational deployment status, and the unit’s training calendar. This data needs to be analyzed for potential testing opportunities that match early-stage development and schedule new capability testing directly with end users.
It is essential to implement these tools because defense capability developers do not have the same extensive real-world market testing environments as a commercial firm can because their solutions may only be fully tested in limited amounts of no-fail combat situations.
Last December, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss reminded her G7 counterparts that democracies must prepare to “win the battle of technology.” A crucial factor in winning this battle is to encourage more private interest in developing defense capabilities and to collapse Gulf War-era barriers to the interested parties. Adopting digital-twins and bolstering use of data analytics during testing are therefore a no-brainer. DoD’s procurement leaders would be well advised to start chipping away at those steep barriers to entry before the next wave of game changing defense capabilities are developed under the competing autocratic models.
Tom Maddux is a consultant at Systems Evolution Inc. (SEI) and was an officer in the U.S. Army Engineer Corps for eight years.