Time—The Forgotten Dimension In Defense

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Speed Determines Winners

Among technology companies, time is the critical, omnipresent competitive dimension with leading companies focusing on a time-to-market metric. In the computer industry where I grew up, being first-to or early-to-market often determined the ability to set standards or win the largest customers creating a network effect unlocking disproportionate investment returns. Today’s tech giants have their roots in being a first mover as Microsoft did in establishing an operating system for IBM’sIBM
personal computer or AmazonAmazon
did with its vision for becoming the online everything store. As the National Defense Strategy of 2018 stated, “Success goes to the country that..better integrates…and adapts its way of fighting…Our response will be to prioritize speed of delivery, continuous adaptation, and frequent modular upgrades.” In other words, speed matters.

Unfortunately, and to its detriment, the bureaucratic structure and culture within the Defense Department is most often at odds with going fast. Naturally, safety and security are primary concerns when lives are on the line; but, as the Ukrainian conflict shows, being slow in adopting the latest technology—whether with drones, leveraging commercial satellite imagery, or in secure communications—can have deadly consequences. The most glaring examples of slowness I saw from my time leading the Defense Innovation Unit were budgeting and acquiring new capabilities for warfighters. These interrelated and lethargic processes include not just procuring and contracting but also the time for setting the requirements (deciding what to buy), testing and aligning the budget resources.

(Original Caption) 1968-Washington, DC: Exterior aerial view of the Pentagon.

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Defense Budget: 7 Years In The Making

Last month, I wrote about the three-year process for Defense to program and Congress to appropriate dollars for defense. The planning part of the process for the current year budget begins with a four-year-old number included in the Future Years Defense Program which spans five years and carries over from one year to the next. In total, that’s seven years of planning to spend a single dollar which means the current budget no longer reflects the latest threats nor emerging technology that can be leveraged to solve military problems. That’s why a Congressional Commission studying reform of the budgeting process for the past two years rightly recommended more flexibility in spending in the year of execution (meaning the year the budget is passed) rather than spending each budget line as planned perhaps seven years prior. In my view, the years of time developing a budget and the lack of agility to move money once approved are the biggest inhibitors of innovation at the Pentagon.

(Original Caption) Off the Coast of Vietnam- The deck of the carrier USS Contellation is loaded with … [+] U.S. Navy jets. The aircraft carrier is located off the coast of Vietnam, southeast of Saigon.

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Defense Capabilities: 17 Years In The Making

In a landmark study, Bill Greenwalt and Dan Patt, observed that for the delivery of new weapons platforms (like subs or fighter aircraft), there is a 7- to 27-year timespan from initial design to warfighter use. That’s 17 years, on average, from concept to capability delivered. No one would contend this is fast enough but the process is designed to ensure that risks are mitigated, taxpayer dollars are not wasted, and Congress has control of spending each year for programs. But, in the end, getting a concept delivered in 17 means that warfighters assume too much risk and taxpayer dollars are wasted. The authors noted that much of the delay stems from time incurred prior to production—planning, optimizing a design, contracting, developing a sustainment plan and aligning budget resources.

Measuring Time—Not Schedule

I recommend the Defense Department explicitly recognize speed as a competitive dimension. To do so is relatively simple: measure the actual time to make a decision, complete a process, or deliver an outcome. If every process were measured in time, there would be surprise at the length of time required with a resulting leadership focus on what could be done to improve. Note this is not the same as being on schedule—which is completing a task within a forecast even if measured in years and perhaps extending to a timeframe beyond relevant. The exception is Major Defense Acquisition Programs where time has been measured consistently and showing longer cycle times, but longer cycles have not forced tradeoffs to achieve a shorter cycle time. Schedule is prioritized but not speed to deliver. Commercial industry readily recognizes that with shorter cycles there are also more continuous improvements made at lower cost—which is what the 2018 National Defense Strategy called for.

Chris Meyer, a friend and practitioner in tech business wrote about this almost 20 years ago coining the phrase “fast cycle time” and suggesting how to align business purpose, strategy and structure for speed. I saw this methodology implemented in the disk drive company I worked for with a resulting faster time to develop and field new products. With a focus on speed at the Defense Department, there would be a balance to the implicit objectives of following process at all costs (even if the outcome is flawed or hopelessly late) and ensuring no tax dollars are wasted (even if the tracking process wastes taxpayer dollars). There is probably no more striking example of the focus on speed than the production of the P-51 Mustang from WWII which was flying 153 days after an initial order and operating within two years. Contrast that example with the F-35, admittedly a more complex airplane, but one which came from various designs in the 1980s and 1990s, first flew in 2005 and began operating in 2015 for a total elapsed time of 25 years. The comparable figure for commercial aircraft today from first order to flying with passengers is 7 years. Countless other examples abound from each Service branch of increasing schedules—from submarines to missile development—yet no one is responsible today for improving the speed of delivering capability.

US Navy P-51, also called Mustang, a single-seat, single-engine fighter aircraft originally designed … [+] and produced by North American Aviation for the British Royal Air Force (RAF) and later adopted by the U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF). The P-51 is widely regarded as the finest all-around piston-engined fighter of World War II to be produced in significant numbers. Circa 1940 (Photo by Camerique/Getty Images)

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“You Get What You Measure”

Within defense, improving the speed of delivering capability, making a decision or completing a task requires measuring and reporting on time elapsed. The adage of “you get what you measure” applies. Measuring time signals to everyone its importance and places speed on a competitive dimension equal to following the defined process or ensuring taxpayer dollars are not wasted. Conversely, not measuring time signals that it’s not important. For warfighters this means delivering capabilities or decisions closer to the speed of relevance rather than whatever time it takes. While there are workarounds created to substitute for Pentagon processes incapable of delivering in a relevant timeframe; however, with the right Defense Department leadership and reinforcement from Congress, change can happen. A great example is the Replicator initiative where Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced last August that the U.S. will field thousands of attritable, autonomous systems in multiple domains within 18-24 months of the announcement. This commitment is novel in including a specific time goal and making it public.

ARLINGTON, VIRGINIA – SEPTEMBER 08: U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks speaks during a … [+] September 11th Pentagon Staff Memorial Observance ceremony at the Pentagon courtyard on September 8, 2023 in Arlington, Virginia. The Pentagon hosted the ceremony for staff to mark the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terror attack at the Pentagon. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

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With a never-ending emphasis on innovation within national security, there should be an equal emphasis on delivering that innovation with relevant speed. Ignoring speed by failing to measure time leaves hidden one of the most important competitive dimensions of warfare and signals that the U.S. is stuck in a little-changing world which may have been characteristic of the last Cold War but is not the world of today.

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