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Research Questions

  1. What are the factors—the functions, processes, relationships, and coordinating structures—that support faster identification, development, and adoption of commercial technology?
  2. To what extent are those factors sufficiently present in the existing defense innovation ecosystem?
  3. How can challenges be mitigated so that any missing or insufficiently present factors can be created and sustained?

Technological superiority is vital to U.S. national security and defense. The Department of Defense's (DoD's) direct investment in basic research and development remains critically important, but it is insufficient to retain a technological advantage against near-peer rivals, especially China, which is aggressively modernizing. DoD recognizes that it must leverage relevant private sector–developed technology.

To that end, DoD has created an ecosystem of defense innovation labs, hubs, and centers to help bridge the technology innovation gap between private-sector firms and the U.S. military. These various defense innovation organizations (DIOs)—the Defense Innovation Unit, the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, the National Security Innovation Network, the Air Force's AFWERX, and the Army Applications Laboratory, among others—have proliferated over the past two decades and operate independently of one another to address specific but often similar needs.

The authors identify and assess challenges to quickly harnessing emerging commercial technologies for military use within the existing defense innovation ecosystem, especially when much of this innovation is the product of individuals and businesses that have traditionally not worked with DoD.

The authors examine the organizations, authorities, and processes—including innovation organizations, requirements, acquisition, and funding—that form the DoD's commercial technology pipeline (CTP). Then they use game play to test alternative approaches to potentially reform and strengthen the pipeline in ways that would accelerate the military's identification, development, and adoption of commercial technology.

Key Findings

There is no single "pipeline" or pathway for the adoption of innovative commercial technologies for military use

  • Many potential paths exist from concept to fielding, and they are not necessarily linear or sequential.

Pipeline functions are distributed across multiple stakeholders

  • Each CTP phase—identification, development, and adoption—includes multiple core functions (e.g., problem curation, concept development, and prototyping) that are enabled by other pipeline functions (e.g., funding, infrastructure, policies, and guidance).
  • Because no single organization performs all pipeline functions, collaboration and handoffs between CTP stakeholders are essential.

DIOs have a limited ability to facilitate adoption

  • DIOs concentrate largely on the early phases of identifying and demonstrating commercial technologies.
  • In the final phases of procuring and fielding technology, DIOs lack consistent buy-in from the traditional requirements, acquisition, and budgeting communities due in part to misaligned incentive structures and processes.

Numerous challenges and gaps in pipeline functions contribute to duplication of effort, inefficiencies, and missed opportunities

  • CTP stakeholders are not aligned to a shared mission of pushing promising technology all the way through the pipeline.
  • Formal mechanisms or requirements for information sharing, coordination, or collaboration across CTP stakeholders are lacking.
  • Incentive structures for CTP stakeholders are also misaligned to goals, objectives, and outcomes, and there are no DoD-wide metrics and accountability mechanisms.
  • DoD is not capturing the full value of outreach and networking with commercial businesses and other partners, and industry does not understand what DoD needs or how its technology may be relevant to the military.

Recommendations

  • Foster a shared mission across all CTP stakeholders, laying the foundation for the information sharing, coordination, and collaboration that a well-functioning CTP requires.
  • Establish and implement DoD-wide policy, plans, and guidance for moving technologies through the pipeline; relatedly, support flexibility and agility in execution, and provide appropriate oversight and incentives to encourage compliance.
  • Develop more rigorous and coordinated approaches to technology scouting.
  • Encourage CTP stakeholders to share problems across DoD to better realize the value of problem curation, which is a labor-intensive yet potentially valuable output.
  • Establish a searchable portal for early-stage ventures to access DoD opportunities and provide support services to help these ventures navigate DoD.
  • Assign responsibility for overseeing the CTP and its outcomes to an organization with the authority and budget to execute such oversight.
  • Establish a flexible funding pool to close transition gaps and give promising technologies a path to maturity rather than stalling in the "valley of death."
  • Implement best practices for DIOs in which their efforts are led by a DoD problem rather than by innovative dual-use technologies; identify transition partners early, even in accelerator or incubator programs; and recognize that an engaged DoD customer is critical for success.
  • Be willing to make behavioral changes to improve CTP outcomes; adopting innovative commercial technology for military use is not just a technical problem but also a cultural one.

This research was sponsored by the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) and conducted within the Acquisition and Technology Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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