What Should Acquisition Innovators Take From Ukraine?

What should acquisition innovators be learning from the war in Ukraine and what are they already doing with respect to it?

Dan Ward recently asked a similar question on MITRE’s “Disrupting Acquisition Blog”: “What should the defense acquisition community learn from the Russian invasion of Ukraine?” He suggests, for example, that acquirers consider the implications of:

  • Supplying Ukraine with the Russian weapons Ukrainians are familiar with
  • The ubiquitous use and sharing of open-source intelligence 
  • The wide use of commercial technologies
  • The poor showing of some types of weapons and terrific success of others that now are in short supply

What’s Going On?

Steve Blank recently underlined intelligence-sharing agreements where in the U.S. government buys commercial satellite imagery and shares it with Ukraine. DOD also will be buying Switchblade tank-killer drones directly from maker AeroVironment. 

Forbes reported that AeroVironment CEO Wahid Nawabi announced that his company has a dedicated production facility ready to make thousands of the weapons for Ukraine if the U.S. government wants them.

Under the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), the Defense Department has been buying weapons and supplies directly from the companies that make them and sending them to Ukraine. On April 1st, DOD announced $300 million in security assistance under USAI. As of May 6, eight contracts totaling $136.8 million had been awarded for equipment including unmanned aerial systems, Puma tactical reconnaissance drones, advanced precision kill weapon systems, communication devices, combat medical equipment and supplies, meals ready to eat, even binoculars.

“For the first time ever our national security is inexorably intertwined with commercial technology (drones, AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, semiconductors, quantum, high-performance computing, commercial access to space, et al.) And as we’re seeing on the Ukrainian battlefield, they are changing the balance of power,” Blank wrote.

What’s more, Blank notes, much of what the United States is supplying to Ukraine is commercially available innovative gear that costs far less money and is made much faster than the exquisite weapons systems from the traditional defense industrial base. Blank argues that the defense market is at a turning point where innovation threatens traditional suppliers, hence innovation is slow-rolled, inefficient, disorganized, and out-resourced.

Others within DOD recently have said so, too, as they’ve made their exits: Nicholas Chaillan, former Air Force chief software officer, who left in September 2021, said the United States already has lost to China in the technology race. Preston Dunlap, the first Air Force chief architect, resigned in April citing the diminishing technology edge and called for a reformatting of defense acquisition. Mike Brown, Defense Innovation Unit director, announced he would leave in September citing “glaring weakness in modernizing DoD,” according to a report in Politico.

Blank offers a set of recommendations for essentially blowing up the way DOD buys and starting fresh. Buy thousands of cheap, attritable weapons, he urges. Provide bigger incentives for venture capital-backed firms. And bring on new leaders with new mindsets who understand commercial innovation and can move with speed and urgency.

Attritable systems, incentivizing VCs, new mindsets. All would ripple down to the contracting community.

So we should pay close attention to what Ukraine portends and what results.