How the Marines are Accelerating Tech Acquisition

By Scott Kirsner |  January 12, 2018

Captain Christopher Wood is an MAGTF Intelligence Officer and Operations Research Analyst by trade. He has served in deployments to Operation Enduring Freedom and the Pacific. He also has a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science from Colorado State, and a Master’s in Operations Research from the Naval Post Graduate School.

Marine Corps Captain Chris Wood

A History of Innovation

When first asked about the rich history of the Marine Corps, dating back to 1775 and the Continental Congress, Wood touched on the organization’s heritage of innovation.

“There’s actually a pretty long lineage… We went as far back to do some case studies looking at even Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, and the types of innovations that he was doing to advocate for things like breech-loading rifles that would phase out the muzzle-loading rifles, prior to things like rifled cannon that phased out the smooth-bore cannon before.”

“As we get into the Marine Corps-specific history, there is a really rich culture of innovation that happened during the interwar period [between World War I and World War II],” Wood says. Following years of “incredibly brutal” trench warfare, “modern technologies were coming along and new tactics were coming out,” Wood says.

“Everybody across the Marine Corps and, really, the entire Department of Defense had this imperative to innovate … That imperative drove [the Corps] to just try a ridiculous amount of concepts and technologies.”

Wood explained that historical innovation often starts with putting a key piece of technology out on the field while working towards a more sophisticated solution. The process then involves testing the technology “over, and over, and improving upon it until you’ve got something that’s good enough to go to market or, in our case, into our acquisitions system.”

Wood says, “Back then, the acquisitions system was much simpler, but they were able to take what we call Higgins boat — which was an industry developed boat [used to land on beaches in World War II] — and iterate through that. Because of Mr. Higgins, who was a very passionate patriot, we were able to say, ‘OK. I think we can go from our ships to the shore in a completely different way.’

“This system led to “amphibious warfare,” which President Dwight D. Eisenhower credited with helping the US win World War II.

“We still rely on that innovation,” Wood says. “We’re still on those shoulders to be able to move and operate across the globe and rapidly get to shore in order to respond to crisis response type missions, humanitarian assistance. That same innovation carries us through.”

Around the early-to-mid ’40s as the Corps saw a similar strategy with the movement of cargo, as opposed to just soldiers, in helicopters. Wood also explained that the Corps further improved helicopters by pushing suppliers to make them bigger to carry more people and cargo. Despite the success of the machine, Wood explained that even this innovation encountered resistance for many years: “There was a very solid period of time where those technologies were questioned and put in doubt. Those same things are happening today with some of the stuff our office is working on.”

Bringing New Tech to a Field of Rules

When it comes to the current era, Kirsner noted that many “think about it as a post-9/11 era of these fairly powerful terrorist organizations,” such as ISIS or Al-Qaeda. Kirsner asked about the current level of disruption in comparison to past wars, such as World War II and Vietnam.

Capt. Wood noted that today, both hostile countries and non-state actors can purchase and adapt commercially-available weaponry and other technologies very quickly.

“We’re seeing [technologies] and we’re just unable to grasp them and adopt them at the time or at the rate at which they are advancing and changing…Because they are commercial capabilities, there’s a huge risk … Those same commercial capabilities can now be purchased and adopted by our adversaries.”

Wood says this has drawn concerns when preparing for potential conflicts with “near peers,” or “major states that we have to be at least prepared to defend against in order to provide our mission to civilians in this country.”

“Those potential adversary countries are able to grab these things and get ’em to the field and get ’em adopted at scale much faster than we are, because they are not encumbered with the institutional inertia. That is, what we call our joint capability integration development system, which is how we identify that we have a need and that we should spend very carefully guarded taxpayer dollars against it, and then go into acquisition, where we start to scale these things.”

After moving out of the proof-of-concept phase, the technology may be given to hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the field. “The imperative of a disruption is very near to us and there’s a lot of things happening across the Department of Defense to respond to that.”

“You see that through the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx), which is an office that is now fully staffed out of Silicon Valley, Boston, as well as Austin, Texas, and they actually staff that with reservists. Not active duty folks that have spent their whole career in the military, but reservists that have moved in and out of active duty and in their civilian positions. They really have a better cultural context through which to look at this disruption.” DIUx describes itself as “a fast-moving government entity that provides non-dilutive capital to companies to solve national defense problems.”

Wood says the DIUx division works alongside Defense Digital Service, a division that is part of the U.S. Digital Service, an agency staffing model instituted by President Barack Obama.

“We’re bringing in folks from Apple, Google, Under Armour, Nike, and you name it,” Wood says. “They’re willing to do one to two years of really public service. In many cases, they’re taking a pretty drastic pay cut, but they’re actually knocking through some of our IT hairy problems that we have that we haven’t been able to solve using our existing methods. They’re really shaking the tree and getting some new methods adopted in the department…”

How We Develop Concepts

“At the high level…We will typically start with what we call a concept, which is the hypothesis we have about either something that’s going to benefit what we do or create an ‘offset’ against an adversary…It’s going to impose a cost upon [those adversaries], meaning they have to consider this new threat from their perspective.”

“We really are huge advocates for creating options that don’t always involve direct conflict. We’re trying to engage our potential adversaries and give them pathways to where we do not have to engage in that conflict. This is something the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Colonel [Joseph] Dunford, has been very public about. Rather than having simply phases of high warfare, we really want to be more comfortable in this complex space — especially with asymmetric partners — where we don’t have to enter into warfare unless we absolutely have to.”

“We take some concepts…Then we war game those out, and we test ’em out. We sit around a table, or we work with some modeling and simulation, to figure out if those things would be effective. Once we figure out if those things are effective or not, then we put them into our requirements process to validate them for spending. Then we go into the budgeting process, and we say, ‘OK, this requirement is higher than this one … Then we can then turn that over, that budget, three years later — because of how we do federal budgeting — three years later I can turn that over to our Acquisition Commands that can now start purchasing the physical equipment and materiel solutions, and we can start to change our training, and adapt it as necessary.”

Examining Emerging Tech, from Additive Manufacturing to Air Taxis

Testing field capabilities takes between 10 to 30 years, according to Wood. “[This process] is really is optimized for 10 years to develop and 30 years to issue, field, and sustain that asset, and then another five years of life cycle, then you replace it.”

Wood says, “It’s totally mis-optimized to some of the emerging technology trends, and what’s happening in, really, anything to do with the digital space. That’s what our office is focusing in within the logistics realm. We try to take a look at these emerging and exponential technology areas and evolve with them as much as possible. Evolve with industry and where they’re going.”

Wood says his team does not necessarily “drive or control” this process, but he says they must be able to keep up with budgets, concepts, and requirements, “We rapidly try to iterate and change that. We, obviously, are not going to issue a 10-year old tablet or a 15-year old smartphone.”

His mission requires his team to rethink how they look at that lengthy process. “Our office is meant to run right into that, and to find those technologies that are a great forcing function for us to rethink that. Then get those to the warfighter as fast as possible,” Wood says.

To oversee this process, Wood says he uses a lot of contemporary innovation methods, including lean startup strategies and crowdsourcing. “We’re looking at human-centered design, and design-thinking methods for project management, and problem-framing planning, and solutions development. That is probably one of the greatest innovations that we actually embark on.”

Wood says his team is also designed to examine emerging, rapidly-evolving technologies. “That’d include additive manufacturing technologies. It also includes an autonomous cargo delivery portfolio. That’s air platform, cargo drones, small things like Amazon, but big things like the future of personal air taxis. Then it also includes what we call smart logistics. This is the intersection of the Internet of Things, of big data, the cloud, artificial intelligence, and how all that comes together to give us a grid of information.”

Integrating the Maker Movement

The Marine Corps’ “Mobile Fab Lab,” as well as other additive manufacturing facilities are part of what’s known as the Marine Maker Initiative. “We’re taking from the global Maker Movement, and we’re integrating that into our culture. That’s actually a really easy integration. Marines love to improvise. They love to adapt.”

“We very deliberately push our decision making at the lowest level possible in all of our operations. The way that we train, the way that we build marines through the boot-camp process, is we really try to empower them…so the Maker Movement just makes a lot of sense.””One of the things that’s almost working against us is that some of these modern technologies that we’re giving marines, when it comes to their tablets, advanced optics for their rifle, some of the radio sets that they work with, or jamming equipment, are fairly complex, sophisticated, and, expensive technologies that we’re giving to these 18 to 20 year-old Marines. Those Marines are very adept at using the technology as it was designed, but they’re less comfortable in fixing, modifying, or even using that technology in ways that it wasn’t intended.”

“That creativity is something that I think we’ve lost in terms of deliberately fostering that in our Marines…We took this Marine Maker Initiative, and this idea of, ‘OK, if we combined these two cultures and we pushed that training out, is there a benefit to that? Can we start to come back and allow Marines to feel more comfortable exploring the use of their technology space?'”

“We can drive them through robotics, through our Arduinos and Raspberry Pis, through welding, through 3D design, through 3D printing. We can teach them all of these skills. It’s in a challenge-based way that isn’t our traditional training plan…where you’re sitting in a classroom, hands on your knees, sit up straight, and look at a PowerPoint. We really started to move away from that, and this is one effort that is pushing the edge for how far away from that we can get while we’re doing this training. Then we actually leave behind a set of equipment instead of making equipment, basically. We allow the Marines to start to continue to explore and see what they could do to support their mission.”

“You’ve got Marines that are CNC milling, digitally milling from foam block or a piece of wood, a terrain model so that they can mission plan to that, rather than building a fairly crude sand table exercise. If you have the ability to make a highly accurate terrain model and also work with foreign partners overseas or in a disaster relief type mission, be able to just put a map on the floor and point to where the problems are and where you need to go and cross language barriers, it really changed the model, so we’ve seen a lot of that.”

Wood has seen Marines build technology including sensors, infrared tools, and 3D-printed drones.

“Our Marines realized that they could make their own basic [3D printed] drones, whether it’s an air drone or a ground drone. They’re fairly simple and they’re not the most resilient. Certainly not as resilient as we would get out of our defense industrial base, but they’re also orders of magnitude less expensive. A lot of these things are $5,000 or less. Most of them are in the $500 to $1,000 range. They’re very simple but they work. They do one thing very well, and they are truly expendable. That’s the challenge we’ve had with some of our equipment sets, even the small drone equipment sets. We’ll get ‘handheld’ drones that ended up costing $30,000 to $90,000 dollars, and they’re incredibly capable.”

But, Wood continues, “they end up getting so complex and so expensive that the Marines get afraid to even use them, or they can only afford so many at each unit. Then they actually end up leaving them in the box rather than employing them as they were designed.”

“We’ve seen a really great intersection from the Maker Movement and the Marine makerspaces of which we’ve got that mobile lab that conducts that training. We also have set up some makerspaces across the Marine Corps from Camp Pendleton, California all the way out to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and the Marines have just taken off with them. It’s another one of those issues where we’re having to try a really hard time keeping up our budget to support the demand signal that we’re getting from the Marines, which is a great problem to have, but it is a very real problem that we wrestle with every day.”

Innovating in a World of Rules

Kirsner turned to a question asked via email by a listener in the financial services industry. The listener asked, “How do you in the US Marine Corps encourage rule-breaking in an organization where everyone is trained to follow the rules?”

“My first thought is that not everyone is trying to follow the rules. The way that I think you encourage it is…you can’t simply find that community at the top, i.e., those that are willing to endorse you to break those rules, or at least play in the gray space. At least within our regulated community, there’s rules that are very strict, and then there’s rules that are generally applied and can be loosely interpreted. That’s where we try to play.”

“Of course, we’re very strict about anything that’s in statute, that is a law provided by Congress. When we get to policies and we get the processes within either the Department of Defense or, more specifically, to the Marine Corps, that’s where we open up a lot of trade space. If you’ve got the top cover that endorses your efforts, then you’re able to go back and ask for a two-week waiver to develop an experiment or a proof-of-concept.”

“We’ve done internal innovation crowdsourcing efforts within the Marine Corps to allow Marines and civilian Marines to propose those ideas…When you get those efforts going at the bottom, you actually get a lot of technical experts that know the regulations much better than you can or I can at least. Sitting in the Pentagon, there’s just no way that I’m going to know all the regulations that are over me at all times.”

“Then you find those people and you empower them. You don’t just take their idea. You give them the resources. You give them the tools to go run with their idea. That’s where we’ve been inspired by a lot of things like Adobe Kickbox and other efforts.”

Eyes on the Micro-Prize

“When you find a great company that you want to invest in, the federal methods for investment really aren’t, ‘OK, go give that company as much money as they need to get to phase one, and in order to move ’em to phase two.’ We just don’t have that ability to sole source out, in many cases. There are specific cases where we can do that. [But] that’s something an industry can do, and they can move a lot faster. We have this competition requirement which is, again, a good thing. There’s some federal authorities that Congress has recently released…that allow us to do prize-based and open challenge competitions.”

Wood adds that his team would like to explore hosting innovation challenges offering “micro-prizes,” such as a $5,000 contract or a blank check to winners. This strategy “also meets all of our federal competition requirements. I could go straight into acquisition, scale that position with that small business partner or that university startup. I definitely want to try some of those models within our technology spaces over the next year. That’s where we’ll really be looking to all of the challenge-based and prize-based models that exist out in the corporate space, all the way from XPRIZE to the hackathon-type model.”

Looking Outside for Innovation

Kirsner asked one final listener question: “You mentioned Adobe Kickbox. Is there anyone else you’ve looked at for ideas for approaches to innovating in a big complex organization?”

“We spend a lot of time out with large industry, large organizations, corporations, just like this community, in order to develop that,” Wood says. “I won’t name specific companies other than those that have already released their model, such as Adobe Kickbox, but there’s a lot of great companies with very patriotic and open leadership that are willing to let us behind the curtain a little bit, and let us know what’s working and what’s not working. That is definitely where I would like to go with the [InnoLead] community.”