US Congress allocates $95bn annually to the Department of Defense (DoD) to support research and development, innovation, and modernisation activities during fiscal years 2017 through 2021. However, questions have been raised about whether the process used to request and allocate those funds is fast and flexible enough to respond to evolving threats.

This financial support gives the DoD more autonomy when pursuing research and development. For example, one flexibility allows laboratory (lab) directors to use a small portion of lab funds to support early research.

However, the DoD has not communicated information across the department about these flexibilities, which could have limited their use in the past. The DoD also does not maintain centralised information on them, but the DoD and military department officials GAO spoke with said such a resource would be useful.

Army, Navy, and Air Force officials responsible for R&research and development efforts said they were generally familiar with the five selected flexibilities GAO reviewed, but not others. Responsibility for implementation is dispersed among organisations.

The DoD used the five flexibilities GAO reviewed to accelerate research and development efforts. For fiscal years 2017 through 2021, DOD reported making about $4.5bn available to begin research, construct test centers, and support technology and software development, among other efforts related to these flexibilities.

GAO findings

GAO identified three factors that helped enable DoD officials’ use of the five financial flexibilities:

Planning helped officials propose uses of the flexibilities that aligned with agency priorities and structure their use to better meet agency needs.

Guidance outlined the roles, responsibilities, and procedures for using a flexibility. The DoD developed guidance for four flexibilities but did not for the lab modernisation flexibility, making it more difficult to use, according to officials.

Institutional support included having agency or local leaders who advocated for or provided the management infrastructure to facilitate use.

The software pilot flexibility that GAO reviewed did not fully meet leading practices for pilot programme design. During the pilot, the DoD learned it could not collect the data as planned from all participating programmes.

The DoD is in the process of updating its methodology but has not updated its evaluation plan for assessing the effectiveness of the pilot. Without implementing such a plan, the DoD and Congress will lack the information needed to determine whether it should be made permanent.