Historically, innovation has been a key part of Air Force (USAF) strategy, and operating within an adversary’s OODA loop (observe, orient, decide, act)1 is part of Air Force DNA. This includes the ability to deploy technological innovations faster than do our adversaries. The Air Force faces adversaries with the potential to operate within the USAF’s OODA loop, and some of these adversaries are already deploying innovations faster than the USAF.
Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the USAF (CSAF), recently addressed the priority of increasing the pace of innovation through experimentation during his congressional confirmation testimony:
The Air Force continues to make great strides in transforming how we envision the future and the capabilities needed to meet any threat. We must be strategically agile in how we conceptualize future capability needs, how we leverage game-changing technologies, prototyping, and experimentation, and how we recruit and develop our people. 2
1 The OODA loop—observe, orient, decide, act—is a decision cycle developed by Air Force Col. John Boyd. Colonel Boyd originally designed the concept to apply to combat operations, but it has subsequently been applied to commercial operations and learning processes. Boyd observed that the entity that could process this decision cycle faster could “get inside” his/her opponents’ decision cycle and react to unfolding events faster, thus providing a crucial advantage in any competition.
2 U.S. Congress, Senate, Committee on Armed Services, 2016, Advance Questions for General David L. Goldfein, USAF, June16, http://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Goldfein_APQs_06-16-16.pdf.
The renewed emphasis by the Air Force on development planning tied to a robust innovation and experimentation process is consistent with the intent of Congress, as reflected in the current priorities of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. Language in the National Defense Authorization Act from both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees supports the use of “development planning as an effective tool for the Department of Defense, and the Air Force in particular, to understand future warfighting needs and reconcile those with . . . concepts and emerging technologies, to provide a technical foundation for acquisition programs. . . . 3 The House Committee on Armed Services further declares its encouragement for the “commitment of the . . . Air Force to development planning, including experimentation and prototyping as a tool to support emerging capabilities.”4
The congressional support cited above encourages rather than hinders development planning and experimentation. Indeed, Congress could be a powerful ally if the Air Force would discuss the recommendations of the study committee with the relevant Senate and House committees and subcommittees to seek their support for the legislation needed to execute the recommendations. In this way, the recommendations can be considered to have helped to achieve the innovation objectives called for in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act.
A good example of how Congress can be an ally occurred not long after the end of the Cold War, when the primary mission of the Navy’s submarine community, antisubmarine warfare, was no longer the top priority. The nation’s “peace dividend” resulted in huge reductions in the funding available for improvements to critical submarine systems such as sonar. Within 3 years, it became apparent that our adversaries had made significant strides toward parity at sea. The decision was made to adopt an open architecture–based improvement program and reclaim U.S. acoustic superiority, and to do it fast.5 It was also decided that the program would look at a much wider array of possible solutions. Small businesses, university laboratories, other sonar communities, and commercial industry were all encouraged to participate in the innovation and experimentation process. Just as importantly, submariners on the front lines were given the opportunity to participate and to be agents of change. Congress, especially members with a small business agenda, was an
3 U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, HR 114-537, May 4, 2016 and U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, 114 255, May 18, 2016.
4 U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Armed Services, National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, HR 114-537 May 4, 2016.
5 Current USAF systems employ, for the most part, proprietary architectures, making it difficult and expensive to add performance upgrades or to improve efficiency. Implementation of open architectures in programs of record is one method of freeing up funding for experimentation as well as providing a potential landing pad for new innovations.
early supporter. The submarine fleet leadership understood the plan and were fully onboard. The program delivered and continues to deliver to this day. Cost, schedule and performance goals were all exceeded. When VADM Ed Giambastiani, at that time the top operational submariner, briefed Congress on the spectacular system performance achieved on early deployments, the new approach was validated. The program’s strongest advocates remain the operators in the field and Congress.
The need for experimentation-driven innovation spans all of the Air Force. Indeed, there are already pockets of success with rapid innovation in the Air Force. Notable examples that will be discussed include the Combined Air Operations Center—Experimental (CAOC-X) at Joint Base Langley—Eustis; the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) Rapid Innovation Process, led by Alok Das; the Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO), formerly led by David Hamilton and currently led by Randall Walden; and the U.S. Special Operations Forces Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics (SOF AT&L), led by James “Hondo” Geurts. Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) is the U.S. Air Force component of the U.S. Special Operations Command (US SOCOM).
Unsurprisingly, the success in these pockets serves to make the absence or slow pace of innovation in much of the rest of the Air Force all the more glaring. In its study, the committee interviewed senior USAF leaders frustrated that development of new technologies that would seemingly require months in fact took years. These leaders felt that the absence of willingness to risk the failures inherent in experimentation was crippling the organization. They viewed the Air Force as no longer able to deliver the level of experimentation, innovation, and technological leadership required by its mission.
There are several factors that contribute to this set of concerns, but in this study, the committee focused on just one piece of the puzzle, the role of experimentation in innovation. Box 1-1 provides definitions for innovation, experimentation, and several other concepts central to the study.
In its research, the committee found that outside isolated pockets, there is little or no space for innovation across much of the USAF. Most units are challenged to fulfill what has come to be called “normal production” missions. These are the missions units across the Air Force that are required to focus on fulfilling today’s operating demands. In many of these units, the Air Force has been under pressure to deliver growing mission requirements, even in the face of flat or declining resources.
Research has shown that when organizations are stressed in this manner, the balance between normal production and innovation shifts to the former, and there is evidence of this in research and development (R&D) spending patterns over the past several decades.6 We live in an era where game-changing technological advances
6 C.M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fail, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Mass, 1997.
come rapidly and have great impact. In such an environment, relevance depends on maintaining a technological lead. One can see this priority reflected in corporate spending on R&D as a percent of gross national product (GNP), which has steadily doubled over the past 40 years. In contrast, federal investment in R&D as a percent of GNP has fallen to just under half of what it was during the early 1960s.7
When faced with budget pressures, why do so many organizations shift their emphasis toward normal production and away from innovation? Normal production operates on a relentless schedule tied to multiyear requirement plans, annual budget cycles, and immediate short-term needs. Because innovation, on the other hand, is focused on the needs of tomorrow, organizations often decide it can wait until tomorrow. There is evidence of this in today’s Air Force. Outside isolated pockets, it is rare for Air Force personnel to wake up every day feeling responsible for carrying out experiments intended to deliver innovation today.
This is what we mean when we say that in much of today’s Air Force, there is little or no space for innovation. Across the Air Force as a whole, there are insuf-
7 Maj Gen Jim Martin, SAF/FMB, “United States Air Force Fiscal Year 2017 Budget Overview,” 2016, pp. 13 and 35, http://www.saffm.hq.af.mil/shared/media/document/AFD-160209-037.pdf and AFD-160209-036.
ficient rapid-cycle innovation processes operating with the same intensity and pace Air Force personnel regularly bring to bear on fulfilling normal production missions.
This problem will not be fixed by the sudden injection of more money or by simply asking personnel to carve out time and energy for being innovative. To some extent, funding is a zero-sum game, and in the face of curtailed spending, the Air Force is under tremendous pressure to fulfill its normal production missions, placing further pressure on the funds available for innovation. Similarly, the time and energy of Air Force personnel can also be viewed as a zero-sum game, and as they are continually being asked to “do more with less,” searching for tomorrow’s innovative solutions often takes a back seat to meeting today’s mission requirements.
The essential first step in addressing this problem is to give able, open-minded leaders the responsibility for dealing with these realities and shepherding innovations along the difficult path from promising idea to proven solution. While the bulk of the Air Force will need to remain focused on fulfilling the tremendous demands associated with normal production, there need to be relatively small units that are responsible for driving technological innovation. These units, not wedded to the normal production cycle, need to focus on assessing the need for innovative technology insertion on a faster timeline, laying out the flight plans for the experimentation campaigns needed to deliver the innovation, and helping deliver the fielded innovation resulting from the experimentation campaigns. Innovation Catalysts to lead these groups, and the creation, leadership, and operation of these groups is the focus of much of this report.
The approach of the Committee on the Role of Experimentation Campaigns in the Air Force Innovation Life Cycle to the research behind its findings is surveyed in the remainder of this chapter and detailed in Chapters 2, 3, and 4, which cover (1) looking at best practices for experimentation in highly innovative organizations, (2) looking at experimentation and innovation as they take place in today’s Air Force, and (3) articulating recommendations for closing the gap between the best practices and what is done now in the Air Force. The implementation of this approach in the study will address the statement of task below.
Statement of Task
- Define the current state of practice of experimentation within the Air Force (AF).
- Assess the role of experimentation in the innovation life cycle and address how it can support the Air Force’s future technology requirements.
- Evaluate the role of risk management and experimentation in the innovation life cycle.
- Evaluate current legislative, organizational, or other barriers that limit the use of experimentation within the AF.
- Review and recommend best practices for incentivizing experimentation based on an assessment of comparable S&T organizations.
- Recommend metrics that can be implemented across the AF to monitor and assess the use and value of experimentation.
- In addition, the committee will address any other factors deemed to be relevant, such as organizational structure or concepts of operation that could enhance the likelihood of successfully implementing a robust experimentation program within the Air Force acquisition community.
The challenge of innovation is not a problem solved by a single silver bullet. Innovation derives from a complex set of interacting forces, and any attempt to foster innovation by addressing only one or two of these forces is doomed to fail. Success lies in understanding the key elements of a complex “innovation ecosystem.”8
The committee’s research findings suggest that the most important elements of the innovation ecosystem for the Air Force can be sorted into three main “buckets”:
- Leadership and organization. Topics in this bucket deal with the need for focused leadership from individuals assigned to fostering experimentation-driven innovation; the need for this leadership to balance and blend the forces driving innovation; the concepts of operation for carrying out this work and how it should be organized; and the attributes required of the leaders who will head up such efforts.
- Tools and processes. The committee must cast a broad net to identify the wide range of tools and processes that have proven useful in fostering experimentation-driven innovation. These include scenario planning, analysis, hypothesis testing, modeling, simulation, gaming, and prototyping, as well as use of “makerspaces” and partnering.
- People and culture. The committee considered the role of leaders, peers, education and training, and enabling systems to be “levers” that shape culture and people’s behavior.
In the committee’s research on best practices in highly innovative organizations, it found a considerable consistency within each of these three buckets, as detailed in Chapter 2. For example, every highly innovative organization studied by the committee had a clearly identified leadership hierarchy and an organization focused on driving innovation. Leaders in this effort always had frequent and direct contact with the senior-most leaders in the organization. The efforts to drive innovation always balanced technology push and user pull. They also always balanced top-down and bottom-up innovation, blending efforts spurred by strategic input from the top as well as opportunities brought forth from the grass roots. They always operated with a list on hand of the most important questions or opportuni-
8 D.J. Jackson, “What Is an Innovation Ecosystem?,” white paper, National Science Foundation, Arlington, Va., n.d., http://erc-assoc.org/content/what-innovation-ecosystem.
ties the organization needed to address at any given moment. And they always saw their job as intelligently orchestrating a series of experiments (“experimentation campaigns”).
When it comes to the tools and processes used by the highly innovative organizations, the most strikingly consistent pattern the committee observed was the use of a large set of tools rather than reliance on just one or two. This is consistent with the research results, which pointed to the importance of having an overall innovation ecosystem for determining success.9
Finally, the committee observed a clear and consistent pattern in regard to people and culture across the highly innovative organizations it studied. All of the organizations had cultures that celebrated innovation and accepted that part of innovation was taking risks and tolerating failures along the way to ultimate success. These organizations hired for the inclination and ability to innovate, they reinforced these attributes in myriad ways, and they had carefully structured human resource systems designed to support innovation.
The Air Force has pockets of tremendous success with experimentation and innovation. In fact, this report will look at some of these when it covers best practices in innovation. However, across much of the Air Force, the situation is very different: Experimentation and innovation are rare. They are too often ad hoc, and it is difficult to find widespread use of experimentation to test the validity of assumptions. It is rarer still to see experiments linked and sequenced logically to form a larger campaign.
The three buckets of best practices the committee consistently observed in highly innovative organizations were observed in the Air Force only in isolated pockets. Outside those pockets, the Air Force had a mixed bag of practices largely antithetical to the best practices observed in highly innovative organizations, as detailed in Chapter 3.
There are several important gaps between the best practices observed by the committee in highly innovative firms and the current practices observed in much of the Air Force. Chapter 4 lays out further details of this overall finding and offers recommendations for closing those gaps.