Innovation isn’t just a matter of creating something new. Rather, it’s the process of translating an idea into goods or services that will create value for an end user. As such, innovation requires three key ingredients: the need (or, in defense acquisition terms, the requirement of the customer); people competent in the required technology; and supporting resources. The Catch-22 is that all three of these ingredients need to be present for innovation success, but each one often depends on the existence of the others.
This can be challenging for the government, where it tends to be difficult to find funding for innovative ideas when there are no perceived requirements to be fulfilled. With transformational ideas, the need is often not fully realized until after the innovation; people did not realize they “needed” a smartphone until after the iPhone was produced. For this reason, revolutionary innovations within DOD struggle to fully mature without concerted and focused efforts from all of the defense communities: research, requirements, transition and acquisition.
Despite these challenges, the Army has demonstrated its ability to generate successful innovative programs throughout the years. A prime example is the recently completed Third Generation Forward Looking Infrared (3rd Gen FLIR) program.
The first implementation of FLIR gave the Army a limited ability to detect objects on the battlefield at night. Users were able to see “glowing, moving blobs” that stood out in contrast to the background. Although detectable, these blobs were often challenging to identify. In cluttered, complex environments, distinguishing non-moving objects from the background could be difficult. These first-generation systems were large and slow and provided low-resolution images not suitable for long-range target identification.
Third Gen FLIR was developed based on the idea that greater speed, precision and range in the targeting process could unlock the full potential of infrared imaging and would provide a transformative capability that would have cascading positive effects across the entire military well into the future. With 3rd Gen FLIR, the Army moved away from a single band (which uses only a portion of the light spectrum) to a multiband infrared imaging system, which is able to select the optimal portion of the light spectrum for identifying a variety of different targets.