The Defense Department needs to conduct robust experiments and more frequent war-gaming tests to prepare the military for the future fight, according to a new report from the Heritage Foundation.
In the first of a series called "Rebuilding America's Military Project," Dakota Wood, a senior defense research fellow at Heritage, argued the Pentagon's "big-leap" approach to preparing for the next battle leads to risky, costly, single-solution programs that often take years to complete and curb the opportunity for innovation across all five services.
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Instead, Wood said the Defense Department should implement an incremental approach based on experimentation to ensure the U.S. military maintains an edge over adversaries like China and Russia.
"In a world in which all have access to advanced capabilities and situational awareness and sensors level the notional playing field, core competencies in combat skills and time invested in discovering artful combinations of capabilities that confer tactical advantage will make the difference," Wood wrote.
"A more constant, regular, intentional approach, which takes time and resources, is much more successful than this sporadic, surging, periodic approach that the services typically do," he added in an interview.
Wood said this incremental approach allows for regular testing, enabling military leaders to assess a program's value and determine whether it's worth incorporating into the force before committing to a multi-year, multi-billion dollar platform that may be obsolete on a future battlefield.
"If you do that on a regular basis—monthly, annually—you actually evolve the force in a much more effective way and through that evolution the force is always consistently ahead of what their competitors are out in the world," he said.
The Pentagon also needs to carry out large-scale war games that place service members in a robust, realistic training environment that incorporates several different weapons systems, according to the report. Wood said these exercises should be conducted alongside frequent experimentation of new technologies, which can then be integrated into the drills.
"Our current military has no experience in a big battle, major war setting so they're going to have to relearn that and those first battles are usually very painful learning experiences," he said. "You can avoid this painful jolt by experimenting and carrying out realistic training, which has been short-changed over the past 10-to-15 years because the Pentagon didn't have the money, the people, the equipment, or the units given the military's heavy involvement in current operations."
"The National Defense Strategy is a very good document, but we don't have a military that can execute that strategy," he continued. "So you either need to grow the military and make it competent or re-envision our national security interests."
He said Pentagon officials should better articulate to Congress the service's needs to prepare for war against a major competitor like China, Iran, or Russia so the department can be given adequate funding. On the other hand, he said Congress needs to better understand what it costs to have a capable military that is stretched across the globe.