Few things inspire innovation better than a bullet whizzing past your ear. But how does the Army translate the innovation inspired by hostile fire in the physical world to the cyber environment, where the risks are less recognizable but far more widespread?
It is hard to compare the damage inflicted by cyberattacks to casualties or fatalities on battlefields, but recent events such as the Office of Personnel Management workforce data breach have shown we can no longer afford to ignore these attacks and their far-reaching consequences. Fortunately, the Army’s centuries-long experience on battlefields as well as its traditions, culture and values have fostered a spirit of innovation in the cyber environment.
The Army Cyberspace Strategy for Unified Land Operations 2025 provides specific guidance that projects the spirit of innovation forward to the modern operational environment. While the strategy provides a foundation to build on, realistically the gap is widening and accelerating, requiring swift and significant adjustments to Army practices to not only remain relevant but also to survive and win on future battlefields. In the age of cyber, technology is not just a combat multiplier, but it is the battlefield itself. Winning on the cyber battlefield requires innovation as an organizational mission and priority, not just an additional duty.
To meet the acquisition and innovation requirements of the cyber domain as identified in the Army Operating Concept, and acknowledging current DoD efforts such as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), we propose the establishment of an Army Innovation Office, based in the National Capital Region. This office would serve as the coordinating epicenter for the Army’s efforts to accelerate innovation to the warfighter—driving creative thinking to shape concepts and rapid acquisition to fill critical gaps.
Developing Capability, Partnerships
Two specific topics impacting innovation in future cyber operations are capability development and partnerships. For capability development, the strategy identifies that the Army should provide flexible total force capabilities “using both deliberate and rapid processes during material development and sustainment.” Additionally, total force capability development must span the entire life cycle, from concept development and acquisition and fielding through operations and maintenance, across the spectrum of Army missions. Other highlights include:
- Achieving unity of effort by establishing an organization to coordinate, integrate, synchronize and unify cyber capabilities development while promoting interoperability and alignment of resources and effort toward common goals.
- Acknowledging that cyberspace and other domains with high technological alignment have unique responsiveness requirements for rapid validation, resourcing and acquisition processes to meet compressed timelines.
- Understanding cyberspace capability development must include quick-reaction capabilities and rapid prototyping, plus a deliberate acquisition process for the total life cycle management of enduring requirements.
- Tailoring cyber acquisition to not only meet the operational timeline but also to promote innovation and keep pace with continually evolving technology.
These highlights frame the requirements and processes but are really just a foundation. Implementing transformational changes will require dedicated leadership, authority and resources.
Despite the wealth of innovative projects, processes and practices across the federal government, DoD and the Army remain tangled in legacy spending and a bureaucracy that strangles innovation. Recent congressional testimony revealed that more than 70 percent of federal spending on information technology supports legacy systems, including a nuclear arms management system still using 8-inch floppy disks. With a balance so heavily weighted toward the operations and maintenance of legacy systems, a significant institutional shift toward the future is required to achieve meaningful innovation.
Going it alone is not an option when it comes to maintaining the initiative in the cyberspace domain. The Army needs to leverage the knowledge, ingenuity and innovation of outsiders; the speed of innovation demands it. As the Army builds its innovation partner capacity to bolster cyberspace efforts, it must not focus solely on technology but also include processes and ideas.
To address the operational, developmental and infrastructural challenges associated with cyberspace operations and the Army as a whole, the Army must open its aperture to view operations through numerous lenses. The Cyberspace Strategy encourages collaboration with academia, industry, the rest of DoD and other government agencies, and our allies and international partners. These partnerships not only broaden Army knowledge and situational awareness, but they also enable the cyberspace community to learn cross-cultural best practices and standards, and to observe patterns and anomalies from the perspective of others. There is a compelling requirement to harness outside innovations and technology as well as talent.
Complementing DIUx, our proposed Army Innovation Office would provide a single location to meet four critical needs:
- Identify, curate and broadcast the Army’s most pressing challenges: These efforts would include synchronizing with the Army’s processes to identify and manage capability gaps and leverage its own Army “other transaction authorities” or, through organizations like DIUx, seek rapid solutions to pressing challenges; broaden the Army’s access to innovative technologies across the spectrum of Army missions; identify technologies and products of potential benefit to the Army and facilitate the introduction of both operators and acquisition officials to technology executives for assessment of the technology and products; and conduct regular meetings with leading and emerging entrepreneurs, academics and thought leaders to discuss trends and future opportunities.
- Strategic outreach: The office could take advantage of the National Capital Region location and facilitate partnerships with other federal agencies, foreign governments, federally funded research and development centers, university advanced research centers, leading universities, think tanks, industry, and the greatest concentration of Defense Laboratory Enterprise labs—all entities highlighted in the Cyberspace Strategy. The location also could facilitate relationships with organizations such as the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DoD Strategic Capabilities Office, Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity, Defense Digital Service, the CIA’s Directorate of Digital Innovation, and the Presidential Innovation Fellows program.
- Culture and soldier/leader development: The office would serve as a hub for spreading innovative thinking, practices and processes throughout the Army while serving as an institutional incubator. The challenges facing the Army in 2025 and beyond are not only technological but also cultural—a challenge that crosses multiple operational domains and requires a fresh approach to problem solving.
- Funding: The Army’s current resourcing process through traditional program offices limits flexibility and agility, putting both existing programs and quick-reaction innovative programs at risk. Leveraging innovative opportunities requires funding to launch and reinforce the greatest opportunities swiftly and traditional funding in the Future Years Defense Program to transition the best of the quick-reaction capabilities to enduring capabilities.
Capitalizing on the value of internal, bottom-up innovation and crowdsourcing, the “virtual seeds” of such an organization have already been planted, including in the U.S. Army Cyber Command/Second Army’s online collection of tools. The intent is to create a physical environment that attracts and extracts innovative ideas from stovepiped origins and transforms them into broader, proactive innovation across the Army and DoD, impacting organizational culture.
This could take the form of a “Tech Outpost”—an advanced, experimental location to investigate and promote the most promising technologies, facilitate collisions of ideas among warfighters, industry experts and academia, but in the form of a military forward operating base command post. Such an outpost would provide a location for various Army developmental communities to converge, brainstorm with industry to shape and develop operating concepts, integrate technology and innovate.
The Army’s efforts to address today’s cyberspace challenges require innovation. At the same time, the Army needs to fully embrace innovation collectively to meet these demands. The Army can no longer afford to pour more resources into the past while engaging enemies who both lack the burden of operating and maintaining legacy systems and also masterfully leverage emerging American-made commercial technology. That is an unsustainable model if we are sincere about maintaining soldier and technology overmatch.
Our enemies have not only caught up with but are passing us in some technology areas such as social media recruiting. To maintain our technological advantage, it is more essential than ever to embrace the creators of emerging technologies and develop fruitful partnerships.
With the benefit of lessons learned from DIUx’s first year in operation, the Army can move swiftly to replicate that success closer to the military’s center of gravity at the Pentagon. The National Capital Region is surrounded by technology giants, including the federal offices of Silicon Valley companies as well as technology that grew up around the defense industry and the internet itself. The internet now enables an Army Innovation Office to provide the connective infrastructure for synchronizing innovation across the Army.
The Army’s Operating Concept recognizes that Army forces will be essential components of joint operations across all domains. Now is the time to meet and conquer that challenge and establish an office with the resources, authority and priority required for leading the Army and its partners to innovate at the speed of cyber.