Innovation is Not a Top-Down Process

DoD Innovation

Defense Secretary Ash Carter

The U.S. Department of Defense continues to look to the private sector for ways to encourage innovation. This is a welcome initiative that we have commented on previously, and we applaud the leadership of Defense Secretary Ash Carter in this area.

Earlier this month, Defense One reported on recommendations from the Defense Innovation Board, made up of technology company heavyweights such as Google Alphabet’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. Most of their recommendations were very sound, and we applaud the DoD’s focus on innovation.

The recommendation for the DoD to establish a Chief Innovation Officer position – to better promote innovation inside the DoD – should be approached with caution. Innovation comes from the bottom up, relying on collaboration and a culture that incentivizes asking tough questions and solving big challenges. Being innovative is not hierarchical in nature.

Fostering innovation means challenging the status quo, and such behavior has not historically been acceptable within the risk-averse DoD. Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk captured the current situation in what he shared with Secretary Carter: “Having an incentive structure that rewards innovation is extremely important. It’s economics 101. Whatever you reward will happen.”

The other recommendations of the Defense Innovation Board include:

  • Increase the speed and timeliness of the acquisition process by increasing the use of mechanisms for waivers and exemptions and offering incentives for quickly resolving concerns.
  • Establish a career track for computer science and a digital Reserve Officer’s Training Corps program.
  • Build a culture of evidence-based, outcome-driven policies and experimentation by, among other things, offering bonuses, recognition, awards and other incentives for managers who promote innovation; giving employees greater voice; and encouraging creativity and divergent views.
  • Increase investment in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Strategic Capabilities Office, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, rapid equipping units and other small, agile, innovative organizations and create more connections among them.
  • Establish a computer science resource that is a “human cloud” of computer programmers and software developers available on demand to swiftly solve software problems.

Of course, the DoD doesn’t need to look to Silicon Valley for evidence of technological innovation. Operating in a highly competitive market, IGC has learned to move very quickly. An example of this is the three-year timeline from development to launch of the first of Intelsat’s high-throughput Intelsat EpicNG satellites. In contrast, government programs can take more than a decade to get a platform into space.

Intelsat has consistently improved its technology and processes over the past half-century of operating one of the world’s largest satellite fleets. We have developed a number of proprietary automation tools that allow just a few operators at a single location to simultaneously control more than 75 spacecraft orbiting the earth, in a range of orbit planes.

These tools benefit numerous commercial customers today, but could also benefit the U.S. government, which is currently considering ways to shift the operation of military satellites over to commercial operators.

The commercial space industry has invested in technology and has developed new technology that ultimately can benefit the military. These latest recommendations, other than creating a new “Innovation Czar,” are positive steps. Now it’s up to the government to execute on them, and take better advantage of innovative commercial satellite services like HTS, hosted payloads and integrated ground services.

These innovations are already here, right in the DoD’s backyard. An increasingly collaborative and transparent partnership with commercial space operators would be a giant step towards augmenting and reinforcing U.S. capabilities in space.

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