Pushing for innovation against existing challenges is unlikely to yield dramatic change.

We need innovation! We need to look to non-traditional defense suppliers! How often have we heard that refrain? I did again in April, when US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter insisted in Palo Alto that “we need the creativity and innovation that comes from start-ups and small businesses.” However, the record of bringing innovation into defense is mixed, and seems little changed over the years despite such statements. The Defense Department is asking for innovation, but innovation to solve its existing challenges. That is perfectly understandable, but fails to understand how innovation actually occurs—especially outside the traditional defense arena. For three reasons, pushing for innovation against known problems is unlikely to yield dramatic change.

First, most military R&D funding goes to the biggest contractors, and their principle objective is to provide profit to their shareholders. The motivation of the most inspired innovators is often different: to see the impact of the innovation, and not merely its financial return. Money is an undeniable factor, just not the driving factor. Seeing how one’s innovation changes human behavior is more often what drives them—not the exploration of how one could make the Department of Defense more effective or efficient.

Second, asking for innovation to solve existing problems leads to evolution, not revolutions. The pursuit of innovations that military forces don’t yet know they need—from radar to lasers—has been crucial in maintaining the technological edge. In contrast, by stating a requirement, one has already constrained the solution. Too often, the DoD carefully details requirements, but then hides behind false claims of security, and denies industry the information and context it needs. Thus do the military services ask contractors (for example) to provide armor to protect against a tandem RPG, rather than asking how to prevent injury to the occupants from a tandem RPG. The former limits industry to a preconceived solution space, without letting them into the broader problem space.

Third is that bureaucratic fear of failure. The only route to innovation is through acceptance of disappointment. While this is widely known throughout the defense establishment, turning this knowledge into practice has been difficult. The very officials who have been conditioned to protect taxpayers’ dollars are also asked to fund risky ideas without defined, justifying requirements.

The UK Government has had limited success in addressing these challenges. In 2008 the Ministry of Defence created the Centre for Defence Enterprise (CDE). The CDE “funds novel, high-risk, high-potential-benefit research to develop capabilities for UK armed forces and national security”. However, this funding 97 projects collectively worth only $11 million in the past year. Trying a new approach is to be applauded, but on such a small scale, it will have limited impact.

Of course, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is well known throughout the world as the well-funded, non-requirement-driven, risk-taking agency. Spending an annual budget of $2.8 billion is certainly impressive, but what are the success stories in the past 58? They are limited, and questioning that agency’s value for money is valid. The success of funded projects actually improving defense capability, and the failure rate or total number of rejections, are not so readily available.

These two approaches are commendable, but are lacking the understanding of what drives and motivates innovators. While the push for innovation in defense must continue, so must the drive to identify suitable means to attract, incentivize and respond to where that innovation is likely to originate.

Martin Neill is a senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security.