The Secrecy Trap: Innovating Where It Matters Most

Learn about government contracting from three different perspectives. Watch the full webinar below.

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The Secrecy Trap: Innovating Where It Matters Most

Our speakers included Dr. Tina P. Srivastava, entrepreneur and author of Innovating in a Secret World, W. Garth Smith, CEO of MetaVR, Inc., and Warren Katz, Managing Director of the Air Force Accelerator Powered by Techstars. They covered a range of topics from the tension between open innovation and secrecy to the complex web of government procurement regulations.

Having heard these speakers, going forward, will you do things differently?

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BONUS EXCERPT: Innovating in a Secret World: The Future of National Security and Global Leadership


Maintaining a Technological Edge for National Security

On May 2, 2011, U.S. Navy SEAL operators killed Osama bin Laden, founder of al-Qaeda and mastermind of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Headlines highlighted the cutting-edge technology that was critical to the success of their mission:

  • Osama bin Laden’s Death Reveals the Value of State-of-the-Art Technology —Venture Beat[1]
  • Attack on Bin Laden Used Stealthy Helicopter That Had Been a Secret—New York Times[2]
  • New Details Emerge On The Surveillance Technology Used To Hunt Osama Bin Laden —Popular Science[3]

The SEALS used, among other things, two stealth helicopters, infrared imaging equipment, instantaneous DNA analysis technology, and secure wireless communication channels with enough bandwidth to live-stream compressed video. Increasingly our national security depends on access to the most sophisticated and advanced technology—like that used in the bin Laden mission.

In the mid-1990s the Clinton administration described the importance of science and technology to national security when laying out America’s national security strategy: “Our defense science and technology investment enables us to counter military threats and to overcome any advantages that adversaries may seek. It also expands the military options available to policymakers.”[4] American leadership around the world is critical to peace and security. While this leadership takes many forms, such as economic, cultural, and scientific, the importance of military leadership cannot be ignored. Our allies also depend on American military strength. That strength requires a foundation of technological superiority.

The Clinton administration further recognized the importance of technological superiority: “Technological superiority underpins our national military strategy, allowing us to field the most potent military forces by making best use of our resources, both economic and human. It is essential for the United States to maintain superiority in those technologies of critical importance to our security.”[5] The Bush administration echoed this sentiment in 2005, recognizing that “the preservation of technological superiority is a key component to our national security strategy.”[6] Technological superiority also contributes to national security because it helps prevent “strategic surprise,” defined as “the sudden realization by an organization that it has operated on the basis of an erroneous threat assessment resulting in an inability to anticipate a serious threat to its vital interests.”[7]

Our national security depends on advancements in science and technology.[8] Research and development investments are critical in “enabling us to stay at the cutting edge of new developments so that our Armed Forces remain the best trained, best equipped, and best prepared in the world.”[9]

The basic premise behind this strategy is that r&d will bring forth technology innovation in the defense sector that in turn creates technological superiority that supports national security, a sequence of outcomes illustrated as follows:

R&D Technology innovation Technological superiority National security

More recently, President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama also emphasized the importance of maintaining a technological edge to support national security and the interests of the American people. As the 2015 National Security Strategy states, “We will safeguard our science and technology base to keep our edge in the capabilities needed to prevail against any adversary. . . .The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our enduring interests demand it: when our people are threatened; when our livelihoods are at stake; and when the security of our allies is in danger.”[10]

After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States became the world’s sole hegemonic power. Dominance in the technological domain (e.g., precision weapons, stealth, and communications networks) has contributed significantly to this position, especially as related to military strength. Today, however, America’s position of technological strength is being challenged in an increasingly multilateral world. Continued technological superiority depends on sustaining and improving a robust pipeline of technology innovation. As the Task Force on Innovation wrote in 2012, “The United States still leads the world in research and discovery, but our advantage is rapidly eroding, and our global competitors may soon overtake us.”[11] The investments in r&d that countries, including China and India, are making “reflect an acknowledgment that science and technology once helped make the U.S. the most powerful nation on earth, and similar power could belong to the nation that most successfully harnesses its intellectual resources and cultivates innovation within its borders.”[12]

It is no longer enough to support R&D and expect technology innovation, technological superiority, and national security to follow. For the United States to maintain its position requires being the foremost at effectively transitioning r&d investment into technology innovation.

Innovation strategy can be understood as the science of improving the yield from this process—that is, increasing the technology innovation that comes out of r&d efforts, as figure 1 shows. Over the years, we have figured out that innovation is a science. While new innovation can appear spontaneous—e.g., the result of serendipitous tinkering—it can also be cultivated and accelerated through purposeful strategy and rigorous efforts.

Public investment in R&D has been critical in creating the necessary environment to foster innovation.[13] Yet in the political and economic climates of the last decade, U.S. government budgets for r&d have declined. In the face of these cutbacks, technology innovation strategies must increase the return on public investment in R&D and be even more effective at yielding technology innovation.

Figure 1.

Fig. 1. The role of technology innovation strategies in the process from R&D to innovation supporting national security. Created by the author.

Beyond financial constraints, innovating is harder today because the next generation of technology requires interfacing with systems that have thousands of technical interconnections crossing many disciplines.[14] Consider just one example from Ashton Carter, secretary of defense in the Obama administration. As Secretary Carter noted in his book, Keeping the Edge: Managing Defense for the Future, “The electronic warfare suite aboard tactical aircraft now under development is a complex system uniting radar, targeting, communications, electronic countermeasures, and attack warning functions previously attached to the aircraft system as separate subsystems.”[15] The time it takes to deliver an initial operating capability (IOC) increases with complexity for aerospace systems. As Lt. Col. Nathan Wiedenman, a program manager of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), said, “A big part of the problem is that even though the systems we’re building are much more complex than they have been in the past, the way we engineer defense systems hasn’t fundamentally changed in a long time.”[16]

Technology innovation strategies themselves must evolve if they are to succeed in the face of financial pressures and increasing technological complexity. The process of innovation itself is complex, difficult to model, and multifaceted. The United States needs further analysis of pioneering technology innovation strategies that have shown promise. The National Research Council, whose charter is to improve U.S. government decision making and public policy, noted in a 2012 report that, unfortunately, the tried-and-true technology innovation strategies that have been honed over decades with strong grounding in theory are unlikely to be adequately modernized to yield the demanding results necessary given today’s dynamic environment. “A new policy approach is required,” the council concluded, “one based on a richer understanding of the complexity and global dimensions of innovation . . . [and] policies also need to take into account the increasingly global and open nature of the innovation process.”[17]

The commercial sector has benefited greatly from new innovation strategies, such as open innovation and gamification, resulting in advancements in technology areas such as genomic mapping, artificial intelligence, and autonomous driving. In the defense sector, however, certain endemic constraints, such as a complex intellectual property and regulatory environment, have hindered the successful deployment of new innovation strategies. Also R&D targeted toward national security—referred to in this book as secure U.S. government R&D—is cloaked in secrecy, which is seemingly at odds with open innovation strategies. The innovation pipeline for national security is influenced and governed by a web of executive strategy, legal codes, agency regulations, and judicial checks and balances. Technology innovation strategies must be supported by a robust legal and regulatory framework lest the U.S. position in the world be threatened.

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