Why can’t the Pentagon buy the cutting-edge technology it needs?

Silicon Valley’s frustration with the Department of Defense is both well-known and well-founded. All too often, the department provides initial funding to develop a promising technology, only to fail to deliver funding adequate to sustain a scaled capability. This gap between initial and sustained funding is so well-known that it has nickname—the so-called “valley of death”—and it makes the Pentagon an unreliable partner. It has gotten bad enough that when defense and technology officials recently convened for the annual Reagan National Defense Forum in California, investors and technologists made clear that their collective tolerance for the Pentagon’s inability to work effectively with the defense innovation base is nearing the point of no return.

The Defense Department is aware of this criticism and has sought to address it via meaningful reform. In a report from earlier this month on competition in the defense industrial base, the DoD reports that these efforts have achieved creditable success in increasing engagement with small businesses through the use of tools like the “Other Transaction Authority,” the “Small Business Innovation Research,” and the “Small Business Technology Transfer” programs. The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) includes similar reform provisions instructing the DoD to streamline contracting—especially of systems that enable software development and adoption—and to expand engagement with new and underused vendors. It also includes an important provision establishing a committee to review and to make recommendations about how to best revise the Planning, Programming, Budgeting & Execution Process (PPBE), the means through which the Pentagon allocates its resources.

These measures are sensible but should not be expected to solve the DoD’s difficulties acquiring the technology it needs to build a modernized military. Process change can reduce barriers to acquisition, but it will not remove the central impediment: The problem isn’t that the DoD doesn’t know how to buy; it is that it doesn’t know what to buy.

Function-first acquisition

The DoD’s approach to technology has its origins in the Cold War. In the 1950s, President Dwight Eisenhower faced the difficult problem of how to counter the Soviet Union’s much larger conventional forces without devoting the entirety of the federal budget to defense spending. The solution was the concept of “offset,” the idea that the United States could find a way to compensate for its disadvantage in the relative balance of forces in Europe. Eisenhower’s approach to offset, the “New Look” strategy, relied upon surpassing the Soviets in the emergent technologies of the day—nuclear weapons and the airplanes and missiles to deliver them. This would balance out the Soviet Union’s conventional advantage, and at manageable expense to the U.S. taxpayer. 

This first offset strategy lasted only as long as it took the Soviet Union to achieve nuclear parity, and by the early 1970s the United States once again needed a means of compensating for the Soviet advantage in conventional assets. The second attempt at offset focused not on increasing the kinetic power of individual munitions nor on amassing the platforms to deliver them, but on ensuring that targets could be reliably hit. The result was a revolution in precision warfare, generated by investments in guided munitions and in the radar, positioning, and communications networks upon which they rely.

In the 1990s, the second offset and the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States with a large arsenal more capable than ever before of locating and destroying adversary hardware at distance and an environment in which there was little pressure to evolve operational concepts. If anything, the 1991 Gulf War and the air war in Kosovo seemed to affirm existing concepts, and the long, consuming counterinsurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 2000s demanded use of current capabilities more than the development of new ones. The Department of Defense thus was under little pressure to think about technology as anything other than the constituent parts of large platforms and systems designed to deliver kinetic force—a paradigm that led to the procurement of the functionally dubious F-35 Lighting II Joint Strike Fighter program in 2001 and the similarly troubled Gerald R. Ford class of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers in 2008.

By 2014, however, a group of senior defense officials convinced that growth in China’s military capabilities was putting U.S. interests in the Indo-Pacific at risk revived the idea of offset. This time, the idea was that the United States could offset China’s geographic advantage by using modern technologies to enable the U.S. military to “project power and to dominate force-on-force encounters.” The thinking behind the third offset influenced the 2018 National Defense Strategy and energized the Pentagon’s interest in modernization. It did not, however, break the habit of defining modernization in terms of large, technology-laden platforms capable of carrying out precision strikes from distance. This fixation persists despite compelling analysis that now should temper claims about the success of this type of high-tech warfare in Kosovo and Iraq (both times).

Initial victories in these conflicts tempted many analysts to conclude that technological prowess had given the United States a decisive advantage. After-action assessments deflate these conclusions. In Kosovo, the success of the air campaign was measured primarily in terms of U.S. and NATO losses—outcomes determined more by rules of engagement than by the technology used. In Iraq, assessing the impact of precision-guided munitions at the outset of both invasions is complicated by the fact that they often were used in conjunction with less sophisticated, unguided ordnance. Nonetheless, enough data are available for serious analysts of both wars to highlight the importance of so-called “legacy” assets in completing critical tasks and to stress that the capabilities of the adversary, the terrain, and even the weather were particularly conducive to U.S. operations.

None of these conditions would be met in a conflict with China. China’s electromagnetic, air, cyber, and missile capabilities are formidable; its surrounding seas and coastal terrain are not static, flat, and featureless; and the PLA is well-trained and committed. These characteristics reduce the value of large, centralizing platforms—like aircraft carriers and the planned Joint all Domain Command and Control (JADC2) system—and increase the return on investment in technologies that promote flexibility, support mobility, and enable localized decisionmaking.

The Marine Corps offers an example of what this kind of technology pragmatism looks like. The Commandant’s Planning Guidance from 2019, the Force Design 2030 from 2020, and A Concept for Stand-in Forces from last year together offer a cohesive, if still developing, description of what the Marine Corps must be able to achieve in the near term and of how to do so. Clarity about the functions the Marine Corps must fulfill begets clarity about the role of technology, and so it is pursuing mobile, expendable tools that enable small and dispersed elements to conduct reconnaissance and to make timely, informed choices about maneuver and engagement. These capabilities will be useful in a high-end warfight, should that be necessary, and also in the conduct of daily competition—used to detect unwanted adversarial behaviors short of war and to mobilize to deter or rebuff them quickly. When faced with the option of continuing to chase future funding for a next-generation multifunctional drone system or to purchase the proven MQ-9 Reaper this year, the Marines chose the latter, a decision that prioritized function over form. The 2022 NDAA-mandated commission to review the PPB&E process might take note of this as a demonstration of how coherent strategy makes it possible to reconcile the tension between short-term budgeting and long-term force planning. 

Informed buyer

Technology firms often credit individual leadership with acquisition successes. When there is a buyer who understands how a tool will be useful, the DoD process is a hurdle, but not an obstacle, on the way to getting a deal done. This does not require expertise in technology. Knowing how a technology works is not prerequisite to understanding how it can be used. Knowing what needs to be done, however, is prerequisite to understanding whether a technology will be useful.

Today’s technology companies are especially good at designing tools to fulfill clearly articulated functional needs. The areas in which the greatest advances are being made are in capturing data and in using sophisticated processing techniques—like machine learning—to enable people to make more informed choices, faster. The imperative for the Services and Joint Staff therefore is not to seek grand system-of-system solutions, but rather to identify common and recurrent operational tasks for which the addition of information, or of more timely information, will help forces know where to be, what to expect when they get there, and how to maximize their likelihood of mission success. For the defense-wide organizations, the imperative is to identify business questions that currently go unanswered, to find ways to reduce transaction costs, to enhance productivity, and generally to make the experience of working for the DoD better.

The DoD acquisition process is an easy target for Silicon Valley’s ire. Yet it is far from clear that process reform alone will make the DoD a better buyer. It is not wrong, after all, for the process to demand that fiduciaries of public money articulate functional goals, define achievable requirements, set feasible milestones, fund at realistic levels, and be held accountable to those plans. But in the absence of pragmatic, clearly defined strategies to drive acquisition, process reform on its own will never deliver the modernized military that the United States needs.

Melanie W. Sisson is a fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology where she researches the use of the armed forces in international politics, U.S. national security strategy, and military applications of emerging technologies.