NDIA at 100: Building on a Strong Foundation

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Brig. Gen. Benedict Crowell Brig. Gen. Benedict Crowell

Photo: Library of Congress

I write this as we mark the 100th anniversary of World War I’s Armistice and NDIA begins preparations to celebrate 100 years of advocating for American warfighters.

As I research NDIA’s foundation, I’m struck by the work done after World War I to identify and correct shortfalls that hampered Allied success. I’m particularly interested in the struggle to harness the creativity and innovation of the Industrial Age to gain a warfighting advantage.

Today’s military faces similar challenges leveraging Information Age capabilities to defend our freedom and prevent a national security crisis. We are unlikely to have real strategic warning and an opportunity to test capabilities, tactics or doctrine prior to a future conflict with peer adversaries; this lends a strategic imperative to initiatives like the Army’s Futures Command, to ensure we identify and operationalize innovation to deter conflict and protect our nation and allies if deterrence fails.

In many ways, World War I served as an expensive lesson in failure to adapt. Artillery and high-capacity machine guns made 19th century conventional “maneuver” using cavalry and foot soldiers untenable. Despite this, neither side employed new capabilities rapidly at scale. Although 14 years elapsed since the Wright brothers’ first flight, neither side developed effective doctrine or tactics to take full advantage of “the ultimate high ground.” And although Karl Benz invented the first car in 1885 and rudimentary tanks appeared in 1904, lack of interest and vision prevented development and deployment of a useful tank until September 1916.

Additionally, problems with reliability and mass production limited tanks’ impact until the final months of the war. We lacked effective policies and processes to fully exploit these cutting-edge capabilities. We needed to do better. We needed speed and agility.

Recognizing the shortfalls impeding America during World War I, in October 1919 the Assistant Secretary of War and Director of Munitions, Brig. Gen. Benedict Crowell, organized Army officers and manufacturing leaders to address military preparedness. This led to the formation of the Army Ordnance Association, NDIA’s precursor, to ensure industrial preparedness that could help deter future conflict and ensure effective manufacturing support to the military when deterrence failed. Crowell was determined to learn from failures to prepare for and exploit change; the same imperative exists today.

The Army’s creation of a command to oversee modernization signals a recognition of a system that fails to deliver innovation at speed and scale. Futures Command plans to identify and deliver innovative solutions “at the speed of relevance — at the speed our soldiers deserve.” More importantly, the organization will work to attract and retain the best talent, inside and outside of the Army, to identify emerging threats and opportunities to provide the service with a competitive edge.

"Part of the reason tank development took until 1916 was a sense among decision-makers that the technology was too risky."

To succeed, the Army cannot be afraid to fail. Part of the reason tank development took until 1916 was a sense among decision-makers that the technology was too risky. While thousands were dying on the front, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, who warned of catastrophic consequences should the Germans develop and deploy the tank before the Allies, oversaw the British

Navy’s tank development through early failures to ultimate success. Churchill’s vision helped end the war; the final Allied counterattack depended on mass-produced tanks overwhelming the 20 tanks fielded by the Germans.

Likewise, Futures Command must fail — smartly — during peacetime because we cannot accept the consequences of slow adaptation. Failure in peacetime, while sometimes costly, provides critical lessons and guidance to increase effectiveness. It allows us to identify and correct deficiencies, and can help us recognize obsolescence as well as game-changing innovation.

Ultimately, failure points the way to productive change to ensure our men and women fight with the best equipment and support. We must overcome our culture of “taking risk and failing is bad.”

Assuming appropriate risk and failing simply drives better innovation.

Futures Command is necessary but insufficient. As we move deeper into the Information Age, what is the risk our industrial base is as ill-prepared to deliver the equipment and capabilities American warfighters will need, at required scale and speed, as we were in 1916? As advanced technologies, including cyber and artificial intelligence, play increasingly large roles in operations, Futures Command and the broader Defense Department need to find ways to collaborate more closely with American industry, especially with companies not traditionally in the defense space. Government contracting officers need to find creative ways to incentivize innovative companies to participate in addressing tough technical challenges. If the government builds barriers, great companies will walk away.

Army leadership designed Futures Command to hedge against these risks. It seeks to operationalize innovative capabilities at scale and speed. Thus, NDIA’s mission has never been more important. Crowell founded the Army Ordnance Association to ensure the U.S. industrial base was prepared for the future.

Looking back, Crowell and the AOA played a key role in U.S military success throughout the 20th century. Building on this foundation, NDIA will continue to work with all stakeholders — government, industry and academia — to ensure American and allied warfighters enjoy competitive advantage from the outset of any conflict. 

Retired Army Maj. Gen. James C. Boozer is NDIA chief of staff.

Topics: Armaments, Defense Department