Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks Keynote Address: ‘The Urgency to Innovate’ (As Delivered)

August 28, 2023



Speech

Good morning, everyone. Thank you, Mac [Thornberry], for the introduction; thank you David [Norquist] for the invitation; and both of you, for your many years of service and leadership and support for the Defense Department.

Before I go on, I want to acknowledge the tragic MV-22 accident in Darwin, Australia and express my condolences to the families who’ve lost loved ones. I also want to convey my prayers for those Marines who were injured, for their families, and for their caregivers. And let me also extend my sympathy to the people of Hawaii: for the deaths of so many in Maui and for those who’ve lost homes, communities, livelihoods, and everything they’ve known.

For the U.S. defense community, these shocks are a reminder that just as hundreds of DoD personnel have been actively engaged in the ongoing response in Hawaii, right now — as we take respite from late-summer heat and humidity — U.S. sailors and Marines are steaming through the western Pacific, alongside close allies like Australia and Japan, collectively upholding our commitment to the security and stability that enables a free, open, peaceful and prosperous Indo-Pacific.

Today — as we enjoy this air-conditioned ballroom — on bases from Guam to Okinawa to Korea to Hawaii to Alaska, U.S. airmen and guardians are on watch in the skies and into space, ensuring those domains too stay free of conflict, enabling commerce and information to freely flow around the world.

Today — as speeches and panels give way to networking breaks and receptions — on another Pacific shore, American soldiers in Washington State are training to maneuver and fire the Army’s latest long-range hypersonic weapon.

And as part of a global force, with global responsibilities, their fellow servicemembers are deployed around the world — from NATO’s eastern frontier, to the Strait of Hormuz, to sub-Saharan Africa, and beyond.

There’s a reason we call them warfighters: because for most of this century, many of them have indeed been fighting wars.

And while I’m glad to say that they, and we, are not at war today, we cannot forget that all of them, are still counting on all of us, to deliver safe and reliable, combat-credible capabilities at speed and scale. So they can deter aggression, and win if called to fight.

Those words — warfighter, deliver, speed, and scale — are at the core of how Secretary Austin and I have sought to drive innovation throughout the Defense Department, especially in this enduring era of strategic competition with the PRC.

***

While DoD always has an imperative to innovate, there’s no mistaking why that imperative has taken on more urgency in recent years.

Because the main strategic competitor we face today is different from the rival we faced during the Cold War — a rival who was relatively slow and lumbering, compared to the PRC of the present.

And while America shed blood and treasure over 20 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the PRC worked with focus and determination to build a modern military, carefully crafting it to blunt the operational advantages we’ve enjoyed for decades.

But the one advantage they can never blunt, steal, or copy, no matter how hard they try — because it’s embedded in our people — is American ingenuity: our ability to innovate, change the game, and in the military sphere, to imagine, create, and master the future character of warfare.

And not only militarily. It’s part of what makes our systems different. America and our like-minded friends and allies have such vibrant commercial innovation ecosystems because we also have free and open societies of imaginative inventors, doers, and problem-solvers.

We don’t seek to crush or control innovation, or make it toe the party line. Instead, our goal is to seed, spark, and stoke the flames of innovation.

That’s a big reason why the Secretary and I bet on our free-market system over the PRC’s statist economy any day of the week. And we still believe in our capacity to innovate, and indeed out-innovate our competitors, because we’ve seen us do it time and again.

DoD’s past innovation pursuits often had labels specific to their times and origins: The revolution in military affairs. Transformation. Offset strategies. The defense innovation initiative. These are just some of the monikers applied to U.S. defense efforts over the decades.

But no matter the name, they all shared a simple and compelling proposition: to create and exploit change as a military opportunity.

And whether the innovation comes from new technology, or new concepts for mature technologies, or new ways to build or buy or use our capabilities, or new sources of such innovations — whether originating within DoD, or outside, as they increasingly do — today, in the face of our pacing challenge, our task is to adapt and integrate innovations wherever they can add the most military value.

***

Easier said than done, of course. I’ve heard all the criticisms — and levied many of them myself, from the inside and outside:

We’re too risk averse.

Can’t hire the workforce we need.

Can’t allocate or expend resources fast enough.

Budgeting and bureaucratic processes are slow, cumbersome, and byzantine.

Not enough incentive to change culture.

Not enough effort to leverage non-traditional suppliers.

Startups and commercial companies can’t figure out how to work with us.

Or that Congress won’t let us move faster.

That our system was built for the industrial age, not the information age, let alone the age of AI.

That we don’t invest enough in R&D — or we invest too much in R&D! Not a joke.

Or the tried-and-true, “DoD isn’t doing enough on innovation.” And the mirror, that we’ve done so much — to quote an August 7th headline from National Defense Magazine — the “Pentagon’s innovation ecosystem is getting out of hand.”

Now I’ll let you in on a little secret: I agree with almost all of this. As one of the world’s largest organizations, it’s often hard to see ourselves clearly, and get out of our own way. So I’m far from satisfied that everything is working as it should.

Honestly, if I could solve all those problems with the snap of my fingers or the sweep of a pen or sheer force of will, I would. And so would Secretary Austin.

Except we’re not God. And we’re old enough to know there is no Santa Claus. Because that’s not how the world works — and it’s not how innovation works, either.

There are no silver-bullets when it comes to innovation.

Of course, silver bullets make for great headlines. But pretending they’re real helps no one — certainly not our warfighters.

Here’s another secret- when it comes to delivering capabilities to warfighters at speed and scale:

Just having an office in Silicon Valley won’t do it. That’s necessary, but not sufficient.

Just being able to do Other Transaction Authorities agreements won’t do it. That’s necessary, but not sufficient.

And even then, just doing OTAs isn’t enough, either. Because once you enter a deal, that capability still must be put into warfighters’ hands, integrated into operational concepts and plans, produced at scale, and deployed to the field.

The reality is, we face an accumulation of challenges. Most don’t lend themselves to singular broad-brush fixes.

The most obvious ones were addressed years ago. The ones left, that we can actually solve ourselves, tend to be, let’s just say, wonky. Not headline-grabbing.

But if they aren’t tackled, our gears will still grind too slowly, and our innovation engines still won’t run at the speed and scale we need. And that, we cannot abide.

Let’s be clear: We all know the challenges and we all know the stakes. This is not about understanding the problems, or lack of leadership focus, or insufficient resources.

This is about systematically tackling the highest barriers to enabling and unleashing the potential of U.S. and partner innovations — some in DoD or our labs or elsewhere in government, but most of all outside of it.

That means we first must see the whole of the defense innovation ecosystem to lower the myriad barriers that get in our way. And then, we must do the hard government work of removing those most damaging innovation obstacles — which is exactly what we’ve been doing.

Over the last two-and-a-half years, we’ve been systematically mapping and debugging the DoD innovation ecosystem.

First, we mapped the entire ecosystem — from whenever a company or an operational need first enters it, through R&D and transition, all the way to acquisition and sustainment.

We then dug deep, working with many of you to identify nearly 50 of the most critical pain points that companies, universities, and innovators of all kinds are experiencing — each one representing a variety of individual obstructions to innovation.

And for almost a year, we’ve been doing the hard, methodical work of solving those pain points. Because good intentions do not drive outcomes. Putting your nose to the grindstone and demanding accountability does.

For instance, we found a need to better-align our S&T and acquisitions processes. That’s why we started connecting our technology, acquisitions, financial, and requirements data systems together, to better track where technologies transition into the hands of the warfighter and which ones. We also started a long process to align our modular open systems architecture standards to simplify how we upgrade DoD weapons systems and reduce costs.

Candidly, we can’t eliminate every pain point — like security-related roadblocks, which we can only alleviate, because a capability compromised by the enemy doesn’t hold much value for the warfighter. It only puts them at greater risk.

But we can do a lot, from security to workforce to transition, to make this entire ecosystem run faster and smoother for everyone — even if you’re not a major defense contractor, or a billionaire-backed startup.

For example, we now provide free cybersecurity services to any company with a DoD contract or access to non-public DoD information.

Of the dozens of tasks we’ve set out to tackle, we’ve completed about 30%, and another 50% are well on their way. Others will never really “end,” like sharing insights from quarterly industry roundtables across DoD. A few require specific help from Congress. And even though we’re through the punch list, even then, I’m sure there will be more pain points to uncover and address. Which we must and will.

***

Just as in any enterprise, our innovation focus has a customer. And here, our main customer is the warfighter.

We are laser-focused from the top on customer needs, and clear paths to fulfilling them. That requires resources and an ecosystem of innovation that supports scaling fast, and we’ve worked hard on both.

This is a complex system of systems. A shotgun-blast approach will not work. Neither will chipping away one small piece at a time.

So our approach is non-linear. It’s iterative. It’s comprehensive and purposeful. It’s DevSecOps.

You can see that in how we’ve evolved the Defense Innovation Unit to the times and to the strategic imperative — and Doug Beck will talk about our DIU 3.0 approach here later tomorrow.

Similarly, we’ve also been rapidly iterating on the foundations to deliver — now — a data-driven and AI-empowered military:

  • We issued data decrees to mandate all DoD data be visible, accessible, understandable, linked, trustworthy, interoperable, and secure.
  • Our ADA initiative deployed data scientists to every Combatant Command, where they’re integrating data across applications, systems, and users.
  • We’ve developed and awarded four Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability contracts to leading-edge commercial cloud providers, to ensure we have computing, storage, network infrastructure, and advanced data analytics to scale on demand.
  • We stood up DoD’s Chief Digital and Artificial Intelligence Office, which is accelerating our adoption of data, analytics, and AI from the boardroom to the battlefield. The Secretary and I are ensuring CDAO is empowered to lead change with urgency, from the E-Ring to the tactical edge. And we’ve invested steadily and smartly in accompanying technology.

All this and more is helping realize Combined Joint All-Domain Command and Control. This is not a platform or single system that we’re buying. It’s a whole set of concepts, technologies, policies, and talent that’s advancing a core U.S. warfighting function. Command and control.

With CJADC2, we’re integrating sensors and fusing data across every domain, while leveraging cutting-edge decision support tools to enable high-tempo operations. And it’s making us even better than we already are at joint operations and combat integration.

CJADC2 is not some futuristic dream. Based on multiple Global Information Dominance Experiments, trips to see INDOPACOM’s Joint Fires Network, and exercises like CENTCOM’s Digital Falcon Oasis and the 18th Airborne’s Scarlet Dragon series — it’s clear these investments are yielding returns much faster than traditional capabilities. Again, DevSecOps.

That’s the beauty of what software can do for hard power. Delivery doesn’t take several years or a decade. Our investments in data, AI, and compute are empowering warfighters in the here and now — in matters of months, weeks, and even days. And they’ll be delivering even more between now and January.

CJADC2 is vital, but it’s only one of the key elements of U.S. warfighting advantage under the Joint Warfighting Concept. So we’ve been extending more bridges and express lanes over the valley of death, to increase urgency and speed the transition from between R&D and production at scale it in important areas — so we get the right capabilities to the right people, in time to matter for the warfighter.

For instance:

  • We started RDER, the Rapid Defense Experimentation Reserve, a process to incentivize joint experimentation and hasten the pathway from concepts to experiments to fielding at scale. One example is systems that fuse sensor data across the battlespace — enabling Marines doing island maneuvers to leverage long-range fires from the Army or Air Force.
  • We’re leveraging new pathways for Middle-Tier Acquisition and Software Acquisition. By the end of this September, over $5.5 billion will have gone through the Software Acquisition Pathway across the last three fiscal years.
  • And we’ve stood up other initiatives — like APFIT, to accelerate procurement and fielding of advanced and innovative technologies, and Competitive Advantage Pathfinders, or CAPs, to overcome bureaucratic and cultural barriers to delivering capabilities at scale to the warfighter.

Together these efforts are shaving 3-to-6 years off transition and delivery timelines for warfighter priorities — like expeditionary wideband SATCOMs, anti-jam radio links, multiple counter-C5ISRT capabilities, and more — arriving downrange well before the end of this decisive decade.

These efforts are already making a difference. And yet we know we must do more.

Across the board, the Secretary and I are personally and relentlessly focused on outcomes, not inputs. This strategic competition demands our urgency. We have no patience for lip service, foot-dragging, or innovation theater. Bumper stickers and brand names don’t mean much if you don’t deliver outcomes.

As you’ll hopefully hear from other DoD speakers here, we’re doing much more to drive innovation — such as:

  • Elevating DIU to report directly to Secretary Austin and empowering it to help us deliver strategic impact at scale;
  • Using multi-year procurement to maximize production of long-range munitions for the Indo-Pacific;
  • And standing up the Office of Strategic Capital to selectively find and fill gaps in private investment that could hamper our access to critical technologies.

The echoes from innovations past have shaped our innovations in the present: from how we stood up CDAO in less than a year, to novel operational concepts we’re developing for long-range fires, to how we borrowed parts of the counter-IED playbook to support Ukraine after Russia’s latest invasion last February.

In the 18 months since then, we’ve sent Ukraine over 3.1 million rockets, missiles, mortars and artillery rounds — and that’s only four of the categories of munitions. We’ve sent and committed much more — over $43 billion of military assistance. And, working with the private sector, we’ve also helped Ukraine access important commercial technology capabilities that have made a real difference to them on the battlefield.

***

Whether in the past or present, innovation has advanced our military advantage when the right ingredients came together:

First, an operational problem; that is, customer need.

Then, a potential solution, with technology that’s ready, or ready enough, to scale fast, in time to matter for the warfighter.

You need an atmosphere where people can test new things, big things, things that might fail, but that could also succeed in a game-changing way.

And you need people at multiple levels — top-down and bottom-up — to see its potential, to bet big on its success, and to drive it over the finish line.

If you only have some of those elements — if the technology can’t get there, if the need isn’t clear, if there’s no risk-tolerance, if people aren’t willing to propel it forward — you get things that fizzle, aren’t adopted, or never scale.

But at those alchemic moments, when all the parts collide, that’s when game-changing innovation really happens.

And right now, is one of those moments.

***

Today, we’re making another big bet; the latest piece of our comprehensive, warfighting-centric approach to innovation. It’s called the Replicator initiative. And I want to tell you a bit about it.

Replicator is meant to help us overcome the PRC’s biggest advantage, which is mass. More ships. More missiles. More people. Before Russia invaded Ukraine again in February, they seemed to have that advantage too.

But historically, even when we mobilized our economy and manufacturing base, rarely have America’s war-winning strategies relied solely on matching an adversary ship-for-ship and shot-for-shot. After all, we don’t use our people as cannon fodder like some competitors do.

Instead, we out-match adversaries by out-thinking, out-strategizing, and out-maneuvering them. We augment manufacturing and mobilization with our real comparative advantage, which is the innovation and spirit of our people.

And so, if the operational challenge we must tackle is one of countering mass, we will do so not only through existing approaches and systems. Those remain important, but we already know how to build and use today’s technology. This is about mastering the technology of tomorrow.

To stay ahead, we’re going to create a new state of the art — just as America has before — leveraging attritable, autonomous systems in all domains — which are less expensive, put fewer people in the line of fire, and can be changed, updated, or improved with substantially shorter lead times.

We’ll counter the PLA’s mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat. With smart people, smart concepts, and smart technology, our military will be more nimble, with uplift and urgency from the commercial sector.

We’ve all seen in Ukraine how emerging tech developed by commercial and non-traditional companies — from Starlink to Switchblades to commercial imagery — can be decisive in defending against modern military aggression. It’s a vital component… excuse me… complement to traditional capabilities, which remain essential.

At DoD, we’ve already been investing in attritable autonomous systems — across the military services, DIU, the Strategic Capabilities Office, and the combatant commands themselves — and in multiple domains: self-piloting ships, uncrewed aircraft, and more.

It’s clear they aren’t just lower-cost. They can be produced closer to the tactical edge. They can be used consistent with our principles of mission command, where we empower the lowest-possible echelons to innovate and succeed in battle. And they can serve as resilient, distributed systems, even if bandwidth is limited, intermittent, degraded or denied.

So now is the time to take all-domain, attritable autonomy to the next level: to produce and deliver capabilities to warfighters at the volume and velocity required to deter aggression, or win if we’re forced to fight.

Since we need to break through barriers and catalyze change with urgency, we’ve set a big goal for Replicator: to field attritable autonomous systems at scale of multiple thousands, in multiple domains, within the next 18-to-24 months.

And the ‘replication’ won’t just be happening from a production standpoint. We’ll also aim to replicate and inculcate how we will achieve this goal, so we can scale what’s relevant in the future again and again and again.

Easier said than done? You bet. But we’re gonna to do it.

To galvanize the full weight and leadership attention of the Department of Defense, so that everyone does their part, and to make sure we get the right commercial uplift and integration that Replicator will need, the Secretary has asked me to personally oversee it, together with the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And we’ll be supported by the Director of DIU, who will help us bring the full power of DoD’s innovation ecosystem to bear.

These capabilities will be developed and fielded in line with our responsible and ethical approach to AI and autonomous systems, where DoD has been a world leader for over a decade — and we’ve kept pace with change as technology has evolved.

Consistent with our National Defense Strategy and Joint Warfighting Concept, we will employ attritable autonomous capabilities in ways that play to our enduring advantages — the greatest being our people. That’s another comparative advantage we have over the PRC. These systems will empower our warfighters, not overpower or undercut their abilities.

In this respect, all-domain, attritable autonomous systems will help overcome the challenge of anti-access, area-denial systems. Our ADA2 to thwart their A2AD.

To be clear, America still benefits from platforms that are large, exquisite, expensive, and few. But Replicator will galvanize progress in the too-slow shift of U.S. military innovation to leverage platforms that are small, smart, cheap, and many.

Now, if you’re a cynic — or just a realist — if you’re thinking, “c’mon Deputy! This is the Pentagon you’re talking about! You’re too slow!” — I do not blame you. Because I’m deeply, personally familiar with almost every maddening flaw in our system.

But I also know that when the time is right, and when we apply enough leadership, energy, urgency, and depth of focus, we can get it done. That’s what America does.

At DoD we always succeed through teamwork. Replicator will be no different:

  • from working closely with the private sector, including commercial, non-traditional, and traditional defense companies alike;
  • to collaboration and integration with allies and partners;
  • to our enduring partnership with Congress, which has the opportunity to be a key enabler in getting capabilities to the warfighter at speed and scale.

***

I want to make something clear before I close.

You’ll never see the Secretary or me rolling out a “mission accomplished” banner when it comes to innovation. Because we are in a persistent, generational competition for advantage, in which we cannot take military superiority for granted.

We must ensure the PRC leadership wakes up every day, considers the risks of aggression, and concludes, “today is not the day” — and not just today, but every day, between now and 2027, now and 2035, now and 2049, and beyond.

Innovation is vital to how we do that.

We are not taking our foot off the gas, and in fact we’re accelerating.

Our goal is always to deter, because competition does not mean conflict. Still, we must have combat credibility to win if we must fight.

With that comes a solemn obligation: to ensure our warfighters are ready, trained, and equipped for whatever may come. Including if the worst comes.

You’re all part of how America fulfills that solemn obligation. In government, academia, industry — in DoD, on Capitol Hill, at research labs, start-ups, commercial companies, and major defense contractors — our warfighters are counting on you — on us — to deliver at speed and scale.

To work together, with greater urgency and unity of purpose.

To not let them down. I don’t intend to, and I know you won’t either. And for that, I thank you.

https://www.defense.gov/News/Speeches/Speech/Article/3507156/

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