The Future of Defense Innovation Lies In Commercial R&D

February 13, 2019

During the Cold War, the Western defense research paradigm depended on two key factors: the ability of the DoD to forecast threats for decades ahead and the funds needed to match the threat analysis and turn R&D planning into functioning technologies. Much of this spending was driven by a fear of Soviet conventional arms, and the federal government maintained the ability to draw vast resources to outpace the R&D spending and developments of other nations.

For a long time, the DoD was able to wag the dog of R&D development and drive private industry technological developments due to the bottomless size of DoD R&D spending (which peaked at roughly 10% of global R&D spending in the early 1970s). For example, the Defense’s need for large-scale microprocessor manufacturing to equip ICBMs and ballistic missiles drove commercial activity in the sector that allowed the tech industry to emerge, even though the private market need for the technology was insufficient to generate the type of growth seen in the 70s and 80s. The push for a lower cost per unit for microprocessors unlocked the technology for the commercial sector, despite initial developments being purely driven by defense.

Before WWII, this paradigm was reversed as the government did not have vast expenditures focused on R&D and innovation in the defense sector. Across the Western world, militaries relied on the application of commercial technologies for defense needs. As commercial technologies like the airplane and wireless radio emerged, militaries adapted them for defensive purposes and guided their technological doctrines along commercial sector developments.

Furthermore, many of the significant advances of the previous war, such as the aircraft carrier or the tank, depended on the synthesis of commercial technologies to be successful. It took the development of the internal combustion engine, the caterpillar track, and metallurgical developments—all originating from commercial needs and designs—to develop the tank. Being first to a technology was not as important as being able to combine technologies and hone their capacity for defense.

As the U.S. share of global R&D spending declines, so too will the ability for it to define technological trends to match its defense assessments. In other words, the future of defense R&D lies in a polar shift in how innovations are developed and sourced. To succeed in this future, defense organizations need to shift their R&D focus towards a reality where commercial, technological developments define the defense needs of tomorrow, rather than vice versa.

Rather than identify a need and spend ten or twenty years developing the technology, defense innovators will need to focus on and forecast development within the commercial industry and identify their potential implications for defense. As defense innovation is rarely restricted to a single discipline, the ability to scout, source, and synthesize new technological developments across industries and disciplines will become increasingly important.

However, this presents a challenge to defense innovators: the volume of potential opportunities continues to increase exponentially, while the resources needed to sort through and identify viable opportunities are limited. In order to effectively innovate, defense innovation teams need to focus on developing strategic innovation networks that source valuable opportunities to the organization. Rather than operating independently and separately from commercial industry, defense innovation teams will need to build close relationships with academic institutions, industry partners, and emerging new startups in order to identify the technologies that will create the next new warfighting innovation.


See how organizations can develop and maintain innovation networks for technology sourcing.






Let's Talk