For more than a decade, the Department of Defense (DoD) has emphasized the need to deploy innovative commercial capabilities on the battlefield. However, their efforts in this regard have not yet yielded many concrete results. DoD officials are increasingly attributing these failures to the so-called “death valley,” or the gap between the development of a technology and its widespread deployment. Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks recently called Death Valley “one of our biggest problems,” and countless industry and government leaders have called on the Department of Defense to better guide companies through this transition.
But eliminating Death Valley won’t magically create technological superiority. Instead of treating it as an obstacle to conquest, the department should embrace Death Valley and use it as a conscious tool to weed out mediocre ideas.
Innovation cannot happen without mistakes. For every brilliant invention, there are dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of attempts that fail. The notion that most ideas fail is ingrained in the funding strategies of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Science Foundation, and other federal research organizations: supporting many different projects with the expectation that some will succeed. The venture capital industry follows the same Model.
The process of introducing commercial technology to the battlefield is no different. Many technology companies that receive contracts from the Defense Innovation Unit, AFWERX, and other Pentagon innovation offices will never produce a usable prototype. Others may be developing functional solutions that for some reason the Department of Defense doesn’t want good enough to keep the system running. Capacity cannot be provisioned at scale. Maybe it’s brittle or easy to hack. Perhaps it doesn’t provide the required power multiplier needed for the battlefield. Whatever the case, if a particular technology is unnecessary or undesirable, it should not emerge from Death Valley.
But such decisions require clear thinking from the Department of Defense. They require the department to know what final position is worth funding and what operational problems it is actually willing to pay to solve – this requires the leader to be accountable for the process, not the other way around. .
In an ideal world, the Department of Defense would be consciously concerned with the technologies it chooses to transition. Leaders will nurture innovative skills in large procurement programs and leave Death Valley with the dry, bleached bones of mediocre ideas. But the reality is that even today the valley is littered with remnants of good ideas that never survived. This is one of the department’s biggest innovation challenges. The problem isn’t Death Valley itself, but the fact that leaders don’t really know what their priorities are – they don’t know which skills to keep and which skills to leave behind for death. We talk endlessly about requirements that are mostly weapon specs, like “how fast does my missile fly?” and “we have operational plans for sequencing fantasy operations.” But we don’t talk about the problem we’re trying to solve, and we’re not actually investing money to solve this problem, whether it’s a physical or non-physical solution.
This lack of clarity is not the fault of any particular office or official; DoD’s innovation ecosystem is structured in such a way that the transition from the world of research and engineering (R&D) to the battlefield technologies is incredibly difficult and practically imperative. Innovation offices and labs are scattered across different agencies and offices and have little insight into each other’s efforts. Furthermore, because the innovation offices are located within the R&D chain of command, their activities are effectively separated from the requirements, budget and procurement processes that drive the development of key platforms and systems.
By the looks of it, the military’s current approach to working with small vendors resembles more “innovation tourism” than a legitimate strategy to introduce new technologies into the department. Offices set up outposts in Silicon Valley and other national centers of innovation, trying local rates and delivering a few small-dollar contracts without providing a meaningful route to major events. This disorganized system eventually leads to good ideas getting stuck in the buying trap and bad ideas being supported longer than expected. Such an approach does not create long-term relationships with non-traditional vendors, nor does it entice aspiring startups to engage with the DoD. Any business, regardless of its profitability, will wander blindly into the valley of death with no end in sight.
Over the years, executives across the department have suggested that spending more money on the technology shift could solve the problem. In its 2023 budget proposal, the Department of Defense requested $100 million to establish a “bridge fund” in Death Valley. But while more funding will allow bureaus to increase the number and scope of their contracts, this effort should address the organizational issues preventing the resulting technologies from making their way onto the battlefield to be effective.
To help successful companies navigate Death Valley—and to ensure that their unsuccessful colleagues lose as little time as possible—the department needs to be more conscious about their engagements. Leaders should clearly define the goals of various innovation activities and increase transparency throughout the ecosystem. Innovation bureaus and sourcing bureaus need to work hand in hand, sharing information on the capabilities of new vendors and creating safe spaces to work with established contractors. The department needs to be a discerning customer and make it clear what skills they will buy and what they are willing to take with them. Budget and requirements processes need to be streamlined for software-based capabilities, more one-way systems, and procurement efforts that don’t make deductions as a program of record. The process must no longer dictate the department’s priorities—the department’s priorities must guide the process.
To be clear, this is not a quick fix or silver bullet. But that problem has been growing for decades, and a political appointment is too big to solve for a strong general or admiral in his first two years in office or in a single rotation. It cannot be solved by creating an informative website. Restructuring the military’s innovation ecosystem and the incentives that drive it will require experimentation. This requires leaders who are empowered to pursue new ideas and are not penalized when those efforts fail. It will take courage to push back Congress and the Government Accountability Office and their passion for predicting an irreversible future in this dynamic new threat and technology landscape. This requires the department to become a better customer and recognize the commercial realities of startups. For this, the officers have to learn to love Death Valley. This change will take time, but the United States cannot fight and win in this new multipolar world until it begins today.
Melissa Flagg is a Visiting Fellow at Perry World House, a Fellow at the Acquisition Innovation Research Center, and an Advisor to the Andrew W. Marshall Foundation. He is also a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Research with over fifteen years of defense research and engineering experience. He can be found on Twitter @flagster73
Image: Flickr / US Department of Defense.