09/16/2013 02:57 pm ET Updated Nov 13, 2013

To Meet the Challenges of the 21st Century, National Security Must Become Entrepreneurial

In the U.S., we often point to the Maginot Line as an example of "generals fighting the last war," and evaluate our military and political leaders on their ability to think ahead to ensure our national security in a complex world. Our military has developed a broad and sophisticated establishment to further this mission -- supported by think tanks, universities and commercial defense enterprises (usually described as "government contractors"). Judged on whether these activities have prevented widespread war against U.S. civilians, this has been a successful effort. However, there are reasons to be concerned that the existing approach to national security may not be sufficiently comprehensive.

Implicit in the prevailing approach to U.S. national security are some common assumptions: (i) force is the ultimate mechanism for resolving international disputes (force as an extension of politics), (ii) international relations and dispute resolution occur within the context of nation states that speak for and regulate the conduct of citizens within recognized borders, (iii) national security activities (particularly threatened or actual force to further national interest) exist in a sphere separate from commercial activities, (iv) international relations, including the use of force, are governed by widely accepted codes of behavior and (v) force is effective when it destroys something the adversary values.

The realities of the 21st century pose significant challenges to these assumptions. These challenges stem from three key trends:

  • The nation state is losing its monopoly position as the organizing vehicle for human conduct. Organizations based upon local or regional force, tribalism or religious principles are eroding traditional national state models at an accelerating pace.
  • Advanced technology is more widely available and more sophisticated than ever before. Fewer and fewer areas of technological advancement require the concentration of capital that only a large organized nation state can provide, making damaging attacks on the U.S. by non-state actors (or failing states) more likely.
  • In a growing range of conflict scenarios, the use of military force is more likely to result in a feedback loop of response that makes the threat of use of force less credible, either because of deterrence concepts such as Mutually Assured Destruction or economic interdependence.

The U.S. must shape its approach to national security to reflect these new realities. In a world of nation states, traditional warfare is an extension of the competition between states. In a world of decentralized innovation that threatens national security, decentralized and nontraditional approaches to threat detection and response are required. U.S. national security requires a nimble, adaptable approach to developing solutions to potential threats and to projecting force and maintaining national security. To use a word that is rarely uttered in national defense circles: the military establishment should incorporate an entrepreneurial culture and approaches into its existing toolkit.

Entrepreneurial behavior is best characterized by the nimbleness and rapidity of innovation that is apparent in the U.S.'s deep culture of startup business formation. Entrepreneurs are not always motivated by commerce, but they are almost uniformly interested in changing the world around them and challenging existing conventions. They also tend to act and move quickly, because independence of action is a core entrepreneurial value. Certainly, in the sectors of the U.S. economy where entrepreneurs have the most freedom of action, economic growth and innovation demonstrably occur.

The current national security establishment is both highly structured and difficult for entrepreneurs to penetrate. Because of the arcane rules (both legal and customary practice) for dealing with the military establishment, many entrepreneurs don't even try; many of those who do try are unable to manage the complexities of contracting with the federal government. There have been some experimental initiatives to engage with entrepreneurs, like In-Q-Tel and DARPA's Cyber Fast Track program. However, a broader shift in approach is needed to bring entrepreneurs and the national security establishment consistently into each other's world. There are many instances where increasing participation by entrepreneurs would allow U.S. national security to adapt more quickly and more effectively to the realities of the 21st century:

  • Technology and threat identification: Entrepreneurs would bring an external perspective to national security problems. By operating outside of the military establishment, entrepreneurs could provide insights as to what is occurring in the broader, decentralized world of technology. In a growing number of areas, the best research and solutions to national security challenges are likely to be found outside of the existing military establishment -- especially in a world of budget-cutting and sequestration.
  • Threat and technology response: Acculturated as they are to moving fast and making change occur, entrepreneurs could provide rapid and appropriate solutions to threats that are created by adversaries in a rapidly changing and decentralized world of technological threat.
  • Technology commercialization: Where the military establishment has created new technologies that could drive broader economic growth and industrial primary, entrepreneurs could take these technologies and create dynamic businesses based upon commercial opportunities.

In order to meet national security challenges, the U.S. must stop thinking of national security as occurring in a closed system, somehow isolated from the broader society and from an increasingly chaotic world. Instead, it must integrate economic and national security, private and public sector innovation, national interest and social growth into a consistent vision. Moreover, it must embrace and welcome entrepreneurial and commercial models into the creation of national security technologies as well as threat identification and mitigation. In a world where threat creation is rapidly advanced by small groups of motivated individuals, we must ensure that our own security apparatus also includes motivated entrepreneurs. The United States approach to national security should adapt to become more like the entrepreneurial, innovative, ready-for-anything citizens that it seeks to protect. It's time to get out of the trenches.