War inevitably presents unexpected challenges. From Germany’s use of mustard gas during World War I to North Vietnam’s surprisingly effective use of its air defense system during the Vietnam War, the United States has always faced unanticipated threats in combat that have required agile responses. U.S. troops on the ground continually adjust to changing enemy tactics with the capabilities they have at hand. Yet the part of the Defense Department that trains and equips those troops has rarely been as flexible.
This is a paradox that would surprise most people outside its walls: the Pentagon is ill equipped to address urgent needs that arise during wartime. The Department of Defense has a fairly good track record of making smart and deliberate long-term acquisitions, as evidenced by the substantial qualitative advantage the United States holds over any potential adversary. Although the department still struggles to contain the costs of military systems, it has come a long way in providing better buying power for the taxpayer. The Pentagon has also, by sad necessity, pioneered advances in medical technology, particularly in such areas as prosthetic limbs and the treatment of traumatic brain injuries and posttraumatic stress disorder.
But the same system that excels at anticipating future needs has proved less capable of quickly providing technology and equipment to troops on the battlefield. I have spent much of the past five years, first as undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics and then as deputy secretary of defense, trying to address this shortfall. With the Iraq war over and the war in Afghanistan coming to a close, it is important to understand what prevented the Pentagon from rapidly meeting immediate demands during those wars, what enduring lessons can be learned from its efforts to become more responsive, and how to put in place the right institutions to ensure success against future threats when agility is crucial.
Introducing a new capability on the battlefield involves three main steps: deciding what