Service Design for Government
Technical Assent Logo
eli whitney innovation in muskets

What Eli Whitney’s 1798 Gun-Making Contract Can Teach Us About 21st Century Defense Innovation

In 1798, faced with potential war against France, President John Adams directed a threefold increase in the number of ready army soldiers.  At the time, gun-making was a complex craft; skilled gunsmiths worked by hand to create each distinctive weapon.  The young government didn’t have the capability to manufacture the weapons it needed, so Adams turned to private industry for support.

Eli Whitney, the famed inventor of the cotton gin, won one of the 28-month contracts to produce 10,000 “stands of weapons,” enough to outfit 80% of the army with new muskets. As the story goes, after two years of contract performance, Whitney had produced exactly zero guns. Instead, he had focused his attention on building a better system for building muskets. He built the factory and the machinery, trained a labor force for how to use it, and developed repeatable assembly process.  The result was the first weapons system where one musket behaved similarly to another and used interchangeable parts.

Outputs Vs. Outcomes in Defense Innovation

While there are certainly some starting points here for a conversation about acquisition reform, I’m focusing on a different, larger issue: how a narrow focus on outputs can distract us from pursuing the right outcomes.  Our military faces similar challenges today as they did in 1798, sharing  a need to rapidly scale its capability and evolve to multi-dimensional threat. Back then, they did it with more soldiers and more muskets; today we do it with much more sophisticated, integrated weapon systems.

We’re living in a new era for innovation in the Defense industry.  Defense Secretary Ash Carter is shaping and expanding an innovation unit in Silicon Valley (DIUx)—and the Department of Homeland Security is following suit.  Professors at Stanford University have students and soldiers collaborating to identify “hacks” for the way DoD does business. Groups like the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF) are facilitating discussions about major issues the Third Offset, Force of the Future, and Goldwater-Nichols Act Reform.  Earlier this month, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its draft of the 2017 Defense Authorization that splits the Pentagon’s largest office in an effort to improve management of research and development  efforts.

These examples suggest a consensus that fostering innovation in our defense machine is imperative to retaining our “edge” over competitors and obstacles—whether we are providing disaster relief and humanitarian support, or fighting large ground wars.  What government and defense leaders  don’t seem to agree on is where to start. What we really need is a system where we are continually getting better at getting better, where real change can happen faster than in 15-20 year increments.

Disrupting the Dominant Cycle of Thinking

Whitney’s brilliance is that he disrupted the dominant cycle of thinking at the time.  Instead of cranking out thousands of hand-crafted rifles, bayonets, and ramrods, he focused on building a system where new technology could be produced faster.  However, our current collective efforts to increase our technological advantages (e.g., Third Offset) seem more focused on buying better muskets—drone muskets, cyber muskets, nano-muskets, human-musket collaboration, inter-continental ballistic muskets—than building a system of innovation.  That needs to change.

Here’s a DoD-specific analogy for what that actually means.  Consider Innovation as an organizational capability gap.  DoD evaluates these gaps across Doctrine, Organization, Training, Muskets (i.e., Materiel such as equipment, tools, systems), Leadership, Policy, Facilities, and Policy (DOTMLPF-P).  Rather than looking first to innovative Materiel (“better muskets”) as we usually do, let’s first actually sit down and think hard about how we can innovate the way the department trains and equips our personnel to solve the problem in the context of the environment in which they must solve it.

Evolving Faster and More Effectively than the Competition

The ultimate strategy to counter competitors’ advantages (real or perceived) is a sustained, organic ability to improve and evolve yourself faster and more effectively than your competitors—rather than building a new portfolio of technologies.  If our objective is to create a system to get better at being better, there are two logical places to start:

Make the “Ability to Adapt” a factor for readiness.

Being ready to meet the demands of a mission is not simply a matter of assessing whether or not you have the right “kit” for the operation.  There is too much variation in the types of environments, the types of missions, and the circumstances surrounding those factors for you to assess readiness on equipment alone.  You have to assess whether or not the people and processes who will use the kit have the ability to adapt what they have (and don’t have) to fit the needs of the operation.

We need personnel who are ready to integrate themselves and their kit into the operation and be successful.  We need processes that allow them to do that—both in the field and in the headquarters functions that support them.  One way to do this might be to re-purpose some of the procurement budget for exercises. Don’t just assess readiness, test it.  Make these exercises faster to plan, less cumbersome to host and participate in, and cover more mission scenarios.  The more frequently we test ourselves, the better we understand our abilities, our needs, and the more we are inspired to innovate with real purpose.

Make non-materiel adaptability and innovation a tenet of the highest level guidance and plans.  

Strategic planning, policy, and doctrine provide a foundation on which much of the DoD’s ’s operations rest.  Like the mindset of our innovation efforts to date, these high level guidance and plans can also become too focused on “muskets.”  This is problematic because these high-level documents take years to formally update.  What’s published is often “behind the times”—describing situations and solutions that occurred in the past rather than enabling future success in what may be a completely new environment.  Fixing the strategic foundation that guides the way we “do” defense requires: 1) moving guidance, policy, and doctrine away from 3-5-year update cycles; and, 2) maintaining focus on enabling adaptability and innovation rather than focus on musket-based (“Materiel”) solutions.


John DiLuna and Danielle Wiederoder wrote this with me.