Military Innovation and the Prospects for Defense-Led Energy Innovation


Although the Department of Defense has long been the global innovation leader in military hardware, that capability is not easily applied to energy technology

Almost all plans to address climate change depend on innovation, because the alternatives by themselves—reducing greenhouse gas emissions via the more efficient use of current technologies or by simply consuming less of everything—are either insufficient, intolerable, or both. Americans are especially proud of their history of technology leadership, but in most sectors of the economy, they assume that private companies, often led by entrepreneurs and venture capitalists, will furnish the new products and processes. Unfortunately, energy innovation poses exceptionally severe collective action problems that limit the private sector’s promise. Everyone contributes emissions, but no one contributes sufficient emissions that a conscious effort to reduce them will make a material difference in climate change, so few people try hard. Without a carbon tax or emissions cap, most companies have little or no economic incentive to reduce emissions except as a fortuitous byproduct of other investments. And the system of production, distribution, and use of energy creates interdependencies across companies and countries that limit the ability of any one actor to unilaterally make substantial changes.

In principle, governments can overcome these problems through policies to coordinate and coerce, but politicians are ever sensitive to imposing costs on their constituents. They avoid imposing taxes and costly regulations whenever possible. Innovation presents the great hope to solve problems at reduced cost. In the case of climate change, because of the collective action problems, government will have to lead the innovative investment.

Fortunately, the U.S. government has a track record of success with developing technologies to address another public good. Innovation is a hallmark of the U.S. military. The technology that U.S. soldiers, sailors, and airmen bring to war far outclasses adversaries’. Even as Americans complain about challenges of deploying new military equipment, always wishing that technical solutions could do more and would arrive faster to the field, they also take justifiable pride in the U.S. defense industry’s routine exploitation of technological opportunities. Perhaps that industry’s technology savvy could be harnessed to develop low-emissions technologies. And perhaps the Defense Department’s hefty purse could purchase enough to drive the innovations down the learning curve, so that they could then compete in commercial markets as low-cost solutions, too.

That potential has attracted considerable interest in defense-led energy innovation. In fact, in 2008, one of the first prominent proposals to use defense acquisition to reduce energy demand came from the Defense Science Board, a group of expert advisors to the Department of Defense (DOD) itself. The DSB reported, “By addressing its own fuel demand, DoD can serve as a stimulus for new energy efficiency technologies…. If DoD were to invest in technologies that improved efficiency at a level commensurate with the value of those technologies to its forces and warfighting capability, it would probably become a technology incubator and provide mature technologies to the market place for industry to adopt for commercial purposes.” Various think tanks took up the call from there, ranging from the CNA Corporation (which includes the Center for Naval Analyses) to the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Project on National Security, Energy and Climate. Ultimately, the then–Deputy Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change, Heather Zichal, proclaimed her hope for defense-led energy innovation on the White House blog in 2013.

These advocates hope not only to use the model of successful military innovation to stimulate innovation for green technologies but to actually use the machinery of defense acquisition to implement their plan. They particularly hope that the DOD will use its substantial procurement budget to pull the development of new energy technologies. Even when the defense budget faces cuts as the government tries to address its debt problem, other kinds of government discretionary investment are even more threatened, making defense ever more attractive to people who hope for new energy technologies.

The U.S. government has in part adopted this agenda. The DOD and Congress have created a series of high-profile positions that include an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Operational Energy Plans and Programs within the Pentagon’s acquisition component. No one in the DOD’s leadership wants to see DOD investment diverted from its primary purpose of providing for American national security, but the opportunity to address two important policy issues at the same time is very appealing.

The appeal of successful military innovation is seductive, but the military’s mixed experience with high-tech investment should restrain some of the exuberance about prospects for energy innovation. We know enough about why some large-scale military innovation has worked, while some has not, to predict which parts of the effort to encourage defense-led energy innovation are likely to be successful; enough to refine our expectations and target our investment strategies. This article carefully reviews the defense innovation process and its implications for major defense-led energy innovation.

Defense innovation works because of a particular relationship between the DOD and the defense industry that channels investment toward specific technology trajectories. Successes on “nice-to-have” trajectories, from DOD’s perspective, are rare, because the leadership’s real interest focuses on national security. Civilians are well aware of the national security and domestic political risks of even the appearance of distraction from core warfighting missions. When it is time to make hard choices, DOD leadership will emphasize performance parameters directly related to the military’s critical warfighting tasks, as essentially everyone agrees it should. Even in the relatively few cases in which investment to solve the challenges of the energy sector might directly contribute to the military component of the U.S. national security strategy, advocates will struggle to harness the defense acquisition apparatus. But a focused understanding of how that apparatus works will make their efforts more likely to succeed.


Jamey Stillings #26, 15 October 2010. Fine art archival print. Aerial view over the future site of the Ivanpah Solar Electric Generating System prior to full commencement of construction, Mojave Desert, CA, USA.

Jamey Stillings

Photographer Jamey Stillings’ fascination with the human-altered landscape and his concerns for environmental sustainability led him to document the development of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility. Stillings took 18 helicopter flights to photograph the plant, from its groundbreaking in October 2010 through its official opening in February 2014. Located in the Mojave Desert of California, Ivanpah Solar is the world’s largest concentrated solar thermal power plant. It spans nearly 4,000 acres of public land and deploys 173,500 heliostats (347,000 mirrors) to focus the sun’s energy on three towers, creating 392 megawatts of electricity or enough to power 140,000 homes.

The photographs in this series formed the basis for Stillings’ current project, Changing Perspectives on Renewable Energy Development, an aerial and ground-based photographic examination of large-scale renewable energy initiatives in the American West and beyond.

Stillings’ three-decade career spans documentary, fine art, and commissioned projects. Based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, he holds an MFA in photography from Rochester Institute of Technology, New York. His work is in the collections of the Library of Congress, Washington, DC; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, among others, and has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, and fotoMagazin. His second monograph, The Evolution of Ivanpah Solar, will be published in 2015 by Steidl.

—Alana Quinn


Jamey Stillings #4546, 28 July 2011. Fine art archival print. Aerial overview of Solar Field 1 before heliostat construction, looking northeast toward Primm, NV.

How weapons innovation has succeeded

Defense acquisition is organized by programs, the largest and most important of which are almost always focused on developing a weapons system, although sometimes the key innovations that lead to improved weapons performance come in a particular component. For example, a new aircraft may depend on a better jet engine or avionics suite, but the investment is usually organized as a project to develop a fighter rather than one or more key components. Sometimes the DOD buys major items of infrastructure such as a constellation of navigation satellites, but those systems’ performance metrics are usually closely tied to weapons’ performance; for example, navigation improves missile accuracy, essential for modern warfare’s emphasis on precision strike. Similarly, a major improvement in radar can come as part of a weapons system program built around that new technology, as the Navy’s Aegis battle management system incorporated the SPY-1 phased array radar on a new class of ships. To incorporate energy innovation into defense acquisition, the DOD and the military services would similarly add energy-related performance parameters to their programs, most of which are weapons system programs. The military’s focus links technology to missions. Each project relies on a system of complex interactions of military judgment, congressional politics, and defense industry technical skill.


Jamey Stillings #8704, 27 October 2012. Fine art archival print. Aerial view showing delineation of future solar fields around an existing geologic formation.

Defense innovation has worked best when customers—DOD and the military services—understand the technology trajectory that they are hoping to pull and when progress along that technology trajectory is important to the customer organization’s core mission. Under those circumstances, the customer protects the research effort, provides useful feedback during the process, adequately (or generously) funds the development, and happily buys the end product, often helping the developer appeal to elected leaders for funding. The alliance between the military customer and private firms selling the innovation can overcome the tendency to free ride that plagues investment in public goods such as defense and energy security.

Demand pull to develop major weapons systems is not the only way in which the United States has innovated for defense, but it is the principal route to substantial change. At best, other innovation dynamics, especially technology-push efforts that range from measured investments to support manufacturing scale-up to the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s drive for leap-ahead inventions, tend to yield small improvements in the performance of deployed systems in the military’s inventory. More often, because technological improvement itself is rarely sufficient to create demand, inventions derived from technology-push R&D struggle to find a home on a weapons system: Program offices, which actually buy products and thereby create the demand that justifies building production-scale factories, tend to feel that they would have funded the R&D themselves, if the invention were really needed to meet their performance requirements. Bolting on a new technology developed outside the program also can add technological risk—what if the integration does not work smoothly?—and program managers shun unnecessary risk. The partial exceptions are inventions such as stealth, where the military quickly connected the new technology to high-priority mission performance.

But most technology-push projects that succeed yield small-scale innovations that can matter a great deal at the level of local organizations but do not attract sufficient resources and political attention to change overall national capabilities. In energy innovation, an equivalent example would be a project to develop a small solar panel to contribute to electricity generation at a remote forward operating base, the sort of boon to warfighters that has attracted some attention during the Afghanistan War but that contributes to a relatively low-profile acquisition program (power generation as opposed to, say, a new expeditionary fighting vehicle) and will not even command the highest priority for that project’s program manager (who must remain focused on baseload power generation rather than solar augmentation).

In the more important cases of customer-driven military innovations, military customers are used to making investment decisions based on interests other than the pure profit motive. Defense acquisition requirements derive from leaders’ military judgment about the strategic situation, and the military gets the funding for needed research, development, and procurement from political leaders rather than profit-hungry investors. This process, along with the military’s relatively large purse as compared to even the biggest commercial customers, is precisely what attracts the interest of advocates of defense-led energy innovation: Because of the familiar externalities and collective action problems in the energy system, potential energy innovations often do not promise a rate of return sufficient to justify the financial risk of private R&D spending, but the people who make defense investments do not usually calculate financial rates of return anyway.

A few examples demonstrate the importance of customer preferences in military innovation. When the Navy first started its Fleet Ballistic Missile program, its Special Projects Office had concepts to give the Navy a role in the nuclear deterrence mission but not much money initially to develop and build the Polaris missiles. Lockheed understood that responsiveness was a key trait in the defense industry, so the company used its own funds initially to support development to the customer’s specifications. As a result, Lockheed won a franchise for the Navy’s strategic systems that continues today in Sunnyvale, California, more than 50 years later.

In contrast, at roughly the same time as Lockheed’s decision to emphasize responsiveness, the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, then a huge military aircraft company, attempted to use political channels and promises of great performance to sell its preferred jet engine design. However, Air Force buyers preferred the products of companies that followed the customer’s lead, and Curtiss-Wright fell from the ranks of leading contractors even in a time of robust defense spending. Today, after great effort and years in the wilderness, the company has rebuilt to the stature of a mid-tier defense supplier with a name recognized by most (but not all) defense industry insiders.

When it is time to make hard choices, DOD leadership will emphasize performance parameters directly related to the military’s critical warfighting tasks, as essentially everyone agrees it should.


Jamey Stillings #9712, 21 March 2013. Fine art archival print. Aerial view of installed heliostats.

The contrasting experiences of Lockheed and Curtiss-Wright show the crucial importance of following the customer’s lead in the U.S. defense market. Entrepreneurs can bring what they think are great ideas to the DOD, including ideas for great new energy technologies, but the department tends to put its money where it wants to, based on its own military judgment.

Although the U.S. military can be a difficult customer if the acquisition executives lose faith in a supplier’s responsiveness, the military can also be a forgiving customer if firms’ good-faith efforts do not yield products that live up to all of the initial hype, at least for programs that are important to the Services’ core missions. A technology occasionally underperforms to such an extent that a program is cancelled (for example, the ill-fated Sergeant York self-propelled antiaircraft gun of the 1980s) but in many cases, the military accepts equipment that does not meet its contractual performance specifications. The Services then either nurture the technology through years of improvements and upgrades or discover that the system is actually terrific despite failing to meet the “required” specs. The B-52 bomber is perhaps the paradigm case: It did not meet its key performance specifications for range, speed, or payload, but it turned out to be such a successful aircraft that it is still in use 50 years after its introduction and is expected to stay in the force for decades to come. The Army similarly stuck with the Bradley Infantry Fighting Vehicle through a difficult development history. Trying hard and staying friendly with the customer is the way to succeed as a defense supplier, and because the military is committed to seeking technological solutions to strategic problems, major defense contractors have many opportunities to innovate.

This pattern stands in marked contrast to private and municipal government investment in energy infrastructure, where underperformance in the short term can sour investors on an idea for decades. The investors may complete the pilot project, because municipal governments are not good at cutting their losses after the first phase of costs are sunk (though corporations may be more ruthless, for example in GM’s telling of the story of the EV-1 electric car). But almost no one else wants to risk repeating the experience, even if project managers can make a reasonable case that the follow-on project would perform better as a result of learning from the first effort.

And it’s the government—so politicians play a role

Of course, military desire for a new technology is not sufficient by itself to get a program funded in the United States. Strong political support from key legislators has also been a prerequisite for technological innovation. Over the years, the military and the defense contractors have learned to combine performance specifications with political logic. The best way to attract political support is to promise heroic feats of technological progress, because the new system should substantially outperform the equipment in the current American arsenal, even if that previous generation of equipment was only recently purchased at great expense. The political logic simply compounds the military’s tendency for technological optimism, creating tremendous technology pull.

In fact, Congress would not spend our tax dollars on the military without some political payoff, because national security poses a classic collective action problem. All citizens benefit from spending on national defense whether they help pay the cost or not, so the government spends tax dollars rather than inviting people to voluntarily contribute. But taxes are not popular, and raising money to provide public goods is a poor choice for a politician unless he can find a specific political benefit from the spending in addition to furthering the diffuse general interest.

Military innovations’ political appeal prevents the United States from underinvesting in technological opportunities. Sometimes that appeal comes from ideology, such as the “religion” that supports missile defense. Sometimes the appeal comes from an idiosyncratic vision: for example, a few politicians like Sen. John Warner contributed to keeping unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs alive before 9/11, before the War on Terror made drone strikes popular. And sometimes the appeal comes from the ability to feed defense dollars to companies in a legislator’s district. In the UAV case, Rep. Norm Dicks, who had many Boeing employees in his Washington State district, led political efforts to continue funding UAV programs after the end of the Cold War.


Jamey Stillings #7626, 4 June 2012. Fine art archival print. Workers install a heliostat on a pylon. Background shows assembled heliostats in “safe” or horizontal mode. Mirrors reflect the nearby mountains.

This need for political appeal presents a major challenge to advocates of defense-led energy innovation, because the political consensus for energy innovation is much weaker than the one for military innovation. Some prominent political leaders, notably Sen. John McCain, have very publicly questioned whether it is appropriate for the DOD to pay attention to energy innovation, which they view as a distraction from the DOD’s primary interest in improved warfighting performance. McCain wrote a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, in July 2012, criticizing the Navy’s biofuels initiative by pointedly reminding Secretary Mabus, “You are the Secretary of the Navy, not the Secretary of Energy.” Moreover, although almost all Americans agree that the extreme performance of innovative weapons systems is a good thing (Americans expect to fight with the very best equipment), government support for energy innovation, especially energy innovation intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, faces strong political headwinds. In some quarters, ideological opposition to policies intended to reduce climate change is as strong as the historically important ideological support for military investment in areas like missile defense.


Jamey Stillings #10995, 4 September 2013. Fine art archival print. Solar flux testing, Solar Field 1.

The defense industry also provides a key link in assembling the political support for military innovation that may be hard to replicate for defense-led energy innovation. The prime contractors take charge of directly organizing district-level political support for the defense acquisition budget. To be funded, a major defense acquisition project needs to fit into a contractor-led political strategy. The prime contractors, as part of their standard responsiveness to their military customers, almost instantly develop a new set of briefing slides to tout how their products will play an essential role in executing whatever new strategic concept or buzzword comes from the Pentagon. And their lobbyists will make sure that all of the right congressional members and staffers see those slides. But those trusted relationships are built on understanding defense technology and on connections to politicians interested in defense rather than in energy. There may be limits to the defense lobbyists’ ability to redeploy as supporters of energy innovation.


Jamey Stillings #7738, 4 June 2012. Fine art archival print. View of construction of the dry cooling system of Solar Field 1.

Other unusual features of the defense market reinforce the especially strong and insular relationship between military customers and established suppliers. Their relationship is freighted with strategic jargon and security classification. Military suppliers are able to translate the language in which the military describes its vision of future combat into technical requirements for systems engineering, and the military trusts them to temper optimistic hopes with technological realism without undercutting the military’s key objectives. Military leaders feel relatively comfortable informally discussing their half-baked ideas about the future of warfare with established firms, ideas that can flower into viable innovations as the military officers go back and forth with company technologists and financial officers. That iterative process has given the U.S. military the best equipment in the world in the past, but it tends to limit the pool of companies to the usual prime contractors: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, General Dynamics, and BAe Systems. Those companies’ core competency is in dealing with the unique features of the military customer.

Jargon and trust are not the only important features of that customer-supplier relationship. Acquisition regulations also specify high levels of domestic content in defense products, regardless of the cost; that a certain fraction of each product will be built by small businesses and minority- and women-owned companies, regardless of their ability to win subcontracts in fair and open competition; and that defense contractors will comply with an extremely intrusive and costly set of audit procedures to address the threat of perceived or very occasionally real malfeasance. These features of the defense market cannot be wished away by reformers intent on reducing costs: Each part of the acquisition system has its defenders, who think that the social goal or protection from scandal is worth the cost. The defense market differs from the broader commercial market in the United States on purpose, not by chance. Majorities think that the differences are driven by good reasons.

The implication is that the military has to work with companies that are comfortable with the terms and conditions of working for the government. That constraint limits the pool of potential defense-led energy innovators. It would also hamper the ability to transfer any defense-led energy innovations to the commercial market, because successful military innovations have special design features and extra costs built into their value chain.

In addition to their core competency in understanding the military customer, defense firms, like most other companies, also have technological core competencies. In the 1990s and 2000s, it was fashionable in some circles to call the prime contractors’ core competency “systems integration,” as if that task could be performed entirely independently from a particular domain of technological expertise. In one of the more extreme examples, Raytheon won the contract as systems integrator for the LPD-17 class of amphibious ships, despite its lack of experience as a shipbuilder. Although Raytheon had for years led programs to develop highly sophisticated shipboard electronics systems, the company’s efforts to lead the team building the entire ship contributed to an extremely troubled program. In this example, company and customer both got carried away with their technological optimism and their emphasis on contractor responsiveness. In reality, the customer-supplier relationship works best when it calls for the company to develop innovative products that follow an established trajectory of technological performance, where the supplier has experience and core technical capability. Defense companies are likely to struggle if they try to contribute to technological trajectories related to energy efficiency or reduced greenhouse gas emissions, trajectories that have not previously been important in defense acquisition.


Jamey Stillings #11060, 4 September 2013. Fine art archival print. View north of Solar Fields 2 and 3.

That is not to say that the military cannot introduce new technological trajectories into its acquisition plans. In fact, the military’s emphasis on its technological edge has explicitly called for disruptive innovation from time to time, and the defense industry has responded. For example, the electronics revolution involved huge changes in technology, shifting from mechanical to electrical devices and from analog to digital logic, requiring support from companies with very different technical core competencies. Startup companies defined by their intellectual property, though, had little insight (or desire) to figure out the complex world of defense contracting—the military jargon, the trusted relationships, the bureaucratic red tape, and the political byways—so they partnered with established prime contractors. Disruptive innovators became subcontractors, formed joint ventures, or sold themselves to the primes. The trick is for established primes to serve as interfaces and brokers to link the military’s demand pull with the right entrepreneurial companies with skills and processes for the new performance metrics. Recently, some traditional aerospace prime contractors, led by Boeing and Northrop Grumman, have used this approach to compete in the market for unmanned aerial vehicles. Perhaps they could do the same in the area of energy innovation.

What the military customer wants

Given the pattern of customer-driven innovation in defense, the task confronting advocates of defense-driven energy innovation seems relatively simple: Inject energy concerns into the military requirements process. If they succeed, then the military innovation route might directly address key barriers that hamper the normal commercial process of developing energy technologies. With the military’s interest, energy innovations might find markets that promise a high enough rate of return to justify the investment, and energy companies might convince financiers to stick with projects through many lean years and false starts before they reach technological maturity, commercial acceptance, and sufficient scale to earn profits.

The first step is to understand the customers’ priorities. From the perspective of firms that actually develop and sell new defense technologies, potential customers include the military services with their various components, each with a somewhat different level of interest in energy innovation.

Military organizations decide the emphasis in the acquisition budget. They make the case, ideally based on military professional judgment, for the kinds of equipment the military needs most. They also determine the systems’ more detailed requirements, such as the speed needed by a front-line fighter aircraft and the type(s) of fuel that aircraft should use. They may, of course, turn out to be wrong: Strategic threats may suddenly change, some technological advantages may not have the operational benefits that military leaders expected, or other problems could emerge in their forecasts or judgments. Nevertheless, these judgments are extremely influential in defining acquisition requirements. Admitting uncertainty about requirements often delays a program: Projects that address a “known” strategic need get higher priority from military leaders and justify congressional spending more easily.

Not surprisingly, military buyers almost always want a lot of things. When they set the initial requirements, before the budget and technological constraints of actual program execution, the list of specifications can grow very long. Even though the process in principle recognizes the need for tradeoffs, there is little to force hard choices early in the development of a new military technology. Adding an energy-related requirement would not dramatically change the length of the list. But when the real spending starts and programs come up for evaluation milestones, the Services inevitably need to drop some of the features that they genuinely desired. Relevance to the organizations’ critical tasks ultimately determines the emphasis placed on different performance standards during those difficult decisions. Even performance parameters that formally cannot be waived, like those specified in statute, may face informal pressure for weak enforcement. Programs can sometimes get a “Gentleman’s C” that allows them to proceed, subordinating a goal that the buying organization thinks is less important.

Energy technology policy advocates looking for a wealthy investor to transform the global economy probably ask too much of the DOD.

For example, concerns about affordability and interoperability with allies’ systems have traditionally received much more rhetorical emphasis early in programs’ lives than actual emphasis in program execution. When faced with the question of whether to put the marginal dollar into making the F-22 stealthy and fast or into giving the F-22 extensive capability to communicate, especially with allies, the program office not surprisingly emphasized the former key performance parameters rather than the latter nice feature.

Given that military leaders naturally emphasize performance that responds directly to strategic threats, and that they are simultaneously being encouraged by budget austerity to raise the relative importance of affordability in defense acquisition decisions, energy performance seems more likely to end up like interoperability than like stealth in the coming tradeoff deliberations. In a few cases, the energy-related improvements will directly improve combat performance or affordability, too, but those true “win-win” solutions are not very common. If they were, there would be no appeals for special priority for energy innovation.

The recent case of the ADVENT jet engine program shows the difficulty. As the military begins procurement of the F-35 fighter for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well as for international sales, everyone agrees that having two options for the engine would be nice. If Pratt & Whitney’s F-135 engine runs into unexpected production or operational problems, a second engine would be available as a backup, and competition between the two engines would presumably help control costs and might stimulate further product improvement. However, the military decided that the fixed cost of paying GE to develop and manufacture a second engine would be too high to be justified even for a market as enormous as the F-35 program. The unofficial political compromise was to start a public-private partnership with GE and Rolls Royce called ADVENT, which would develop the next generation of fighter engine that might compete to get onto F-35 deliveries after 2020. ADVENT’s headline target for performance improvement is a 25% reduction in specific fuel consumption, which would reduce operating costs and, more important, would increase the F-35’s range and its ability to loiter over targets, directly contributing to its warfighting capabilities, especially in the Pacific theater, where distances between bases and potential targets are long. Although this increase in capability seems particularly sensible, given the announced U.S. strategy of “rebalancing” our military toward Asia, the Air Force has struggled to come up with its share of funding for the public/private partnership and has hesitated to prepare for a post-2020 competition between the new engine and the now-established F-135. The Air Force may have enough to worry about trying to get the first engine through test and evaluation, and paying the fixed costs of a future competitor still seems like a luxury in a time of budget constraint. Countless potential energy innovations have much weaker strategic logic than the ADVENT engine, and if ADVENT has trouble finding a receptive buyer, the others are likely to have much more trouble.

Of course, military culture also offers some hopeful points for the energy innovation agenda. For example, even if energy innovation adds complexity to military logistics in managing a mix of biofuels, or generating and storing distributed power rather than using standardized large-capacity diesel generators, the military is actually good at dealing with complexity. The Army has always moved tons of consumables and countless spare parts to the front to feed a vast organization of many different communities (infantry, armor, artillery, aviation, etc.). The Navy’s power projection capability is built on a combination of carefully planning what ships need to take with them with flexible purchasing overseas and underway replenishment. The old saw that the Army would rather plan than fight may be an exaggeration, but it holds more than a grain of truth, because the Army is genuinely good at planning. More than most organizations, the U.S. military is well prepared to deal with the complexity that energy innovation and field experimentation will inject into its routines. Even if the logistics system seems Byzantine and inefficient, the military’s organizational culture does not have antibodies against the complexity that energy innovation might bring.


Jamey Stillings #11590, 5 September 2013. Fine art archival print. Solar flux testing, Solar Field 3.

Who will support military-led innovation?

The potential for linking energy innovation to the DOD’s core mission seems especially important and exciting right now, because of the recent experience at war, and even more than that, because the recent wars happen to have involved a type of fighting with troops deployed to isolated outposts far from their home bases, in an extreme geography that stressed the logistics system. But as the U.S. effort in Afghanistan draws down, energy consumption in operations will account for less of total energy consumption, meaning that operational energy innovations will have less effect on energy security. More important, operational energy innovations will be of less interest to the military customers, who according to the 2012 Strategic Guidance are not planning for a repeat of such an extreme situation as the war in Afghanistan. Even if reality belies their expectations (after all, they did not expect to deploy to Afghanistan in 2001, either) acquisition investments follow the ex ante plans, not the ex post reality.

Specific military organizations that have an interest in preparing to fight with a light footprint in austere conditions may well continue the operational energy emphasis of the past few years. The good news for advocates of military demand pull for energy innovation is that special operations forces are viewed as the heroes of the recent wars, making them politically popular. They also have their own budget lines that are less likely to be swallowed by more prosaic needs such as paying for infrastructure at a time of declining defense budgets. While the conventional military’s attention moves to preparation against a rising near-peer competitor in China (a possible future, if not the only one, for U.S. strategic planning), special operations may still want lightweight powerful batteries and solar panels to bring power far off the grid. Even if a lot of special operations procurement buys custom jobs for highly unusual missions, the underlying research to make special operations equipment may also contribute to wider commercial uses such as electric cars and distributed electricity generation, if not to other challenges like infrastructure-scale energy storage and grid integration of small-scale generators.


Jamey Stillings #9395, 21 March 2013. Fine art archival print. Sunrise, view to the southeast of Solar Fields 3, 2, and1.

Working with industry for defense-led energy innovation requires treading a fine line. Advocates need to understand the critical tasks facing specific military organizations, meaning that they have to live in the world of military jargon, strategic thinking, and budget politics. At the same time, the advocates need to be able to reach nontraditional suppliers who have no interest in military culture but are developing technologies that follow performance trajectories totally different from those of the established military systems. More likely, it will not be the advocates who will develop the knowledge to bridge the two groups, their understandings of their critical tasks, and the ways they communicate and contract. It will be the DOD’s prime contractors, if their military customers want them to respond to a demand for energy innovation.

Defense really does need some new energy technologies, ranging from fuel-efficient jet engines to easily rechargeable lightweight batteries, and the DOD is likely to find some money for particular technologies. Those technologies may also make a difference for the broader energy economy. But energy technology policy advocates looking for a wealthy investor to transform the global economy probably ask too much of the DOD. Military innovations that turn out to have huge commercial implications—innovations such as the Internet and the Global Positioning System—do not come along very often, and it takes decades before their civilian relatives are well understood and widely available. The military develops these products because of its own internal needs, driven by military judgment, congressional budget politics, and the core competencies of defense-oriented industry.

In a 2014 report, the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate Change blithely discussed the need to “chang[e] the [military] culture surrounding how energy is generated and used….” Trying to change the way the military works drives into the teeth of military and political resistance to defense-led energy innovation. Changing the culture might also undermine the DOD’s ability to innovate; after all, one of the key reasons why Pew and others are interested in using the defense acquisition apparatus for energy innovation is that mission-focused technology development at the DOD has been so successful in the past. Better to focus defense-led energy innovation efforts on projects that actually align with military missions rather than stretching the boundaries of the concept and weakening the overall effort.

Recommended reading

Thomas P. Erhard, Air Force UAVs: The Secret History (Arlington, VA: Mitchell Institute for Airpower Studies, July 2010).

Eugene Gholz, “Eisenhower versus the Spinoff Story: Did the Rise of the Military-Industrial Complex Hurt or Help America’s Commercial Competitiveness?” Enterprise and Society 12, no. 1 (March 2011).

Dwight R. Lee, “Public Goods, Politics, and Two Cheers for the Military-Industrial Complex,” in Robert Higgs, ed., Arms, Politics, and the Economy: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives (New York, NY: Holmes & Meier, 1990), pp. 22–36.

Thomas L. McNaugher, New Weapons, Old Politics: America’s Military Procurement Muddle (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 1989).

David C. Mowery, “Defense-related R&D as a model for ‘Grand Challenges’ technology policies,” Research Policy 41, no. 10 (December 2012).

Report of the Defense Science Board Task Force on DoD Energy Strategy: “More Fight–Less Fuel” (Washington, DC: Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, February 2008).

Harvey M. Sapolsky, Eugene Gholz, and Caitlin Talmadge, US Defense Politics: The Origins of Security Policy (London, UK: Routledge, Revised and Expanded 2nd edition, 2013).

Eugene Gholz ([email protected]) is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs of The University of Texas at Austin.

Your participation enriches the conversation

Respond to the ideas raised in this essay by writing to [email protected]. And read what others are saying in our lively Forum section.

Cite this Article

Gholz, Eugene. “Military Innovation and the Prospects for Defense-Led Energy Innovation.” Issues in Science and Technology 31, no. 1 (Fall 2014).

Vol. XXXI, No. 1, Fall 2014