Bigger Isn't Always Better for U.S. Military

When politicians talk about finding efficiency in government, they rarely talk about innovation in national security.

Listening to presidential candidates try to outdo themselves with plans on how much larger to grow the military, I am struck by how much the focus is on size. The discussion is on scale and types of forces. Candidates refer to numbers of ships and Army brigades as an analogue for our national security capabilities.

They are not really discussing whether we are building the right national security forces for the 21st century. Nor are the asking whether we are arming ourselves in a cost efficient and intelligent manner. Plenty of our presidential candidates seem happy to talk about finding efficiencies in other parts of the federal budget. National security shouldn't get a free pass.

The U.S. Army is one service that could benefit from an injection of innovation. Too many failed weapons programs have cost soldiers from receiving the best equipment and taxpayers are left with the bill, according to a recent piece by Michael Hoffman of Tandem National Security Innovations.

The report discusses how the U.S. Army has approached arms procurement in the past, and how it is looking to become more efficient. There are some significant points to be made: capability creep, limitations on contracting, and budget unpredictability all play a significant part in poor acquisition track record.

The U.S. Army is not alone. Similar stories can be found surrounding other services and programs - the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, for example. Not only is bigger not always better, it is often much more expensive than it needs to be.

The other issue that our politicians are not discussing is whether we are creating the right military forces by merely expanding them. The nature of armed conflict has changed. The lines between nations and non-nations waging war has blurred.

Cyber security is a leading example of this, as is the current conflict with ISIS. In many ways the threats we face are from smaller and more innovative groups. We need to be innovative in return.

There are a number of ways for our national security capabilities to be more capable and less expensive. First, we must modify current acquisition rules to make it easier for our national security establishment to acquire and use commercially available technology. Because the commercial market for many technologies is so much larger than the narrow national security market, prices and capabilities are often better due to the simple reality of business competition and value creation.

Second, we must utilize business models that allow for innovation. Google and Apple have learned that if you open up an operating system you can get people to innovate within it. Many of you are reading this post through a software app that exists because of this approach. There is no reason why we cannot apply a similar modular approach to the outfitting of our large weapons platforms.

Finally, emerging efforts by the Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security to reach new sources of innovation should be embraced and expanded. Defense Secretary Ash Carter has made innovation a priority while making highly publicized trips to Silicon Valley. We need the nimbleness of startup innovators and garage inventors to combat the nimbleness of our adversaries, and how quickly threats can change in the modern world.

National security is an essential part of the overall well being of our nation. So is being smart with our money. Bigger isn't always better. But smarter usually is.