One of the mantras repeated by many defense managements and some within the U.S. Defense Department is a desire for stability and predictability in acquisition programs. That may be a problem, however, if other nations' defense-industry enterprises are less stable and more unpredictable. If evidence mounts that the velocity of change pursued by U.S. adversaries is accelerating, the rather languid acquisition processes now in place at the Pentagon will have to be sped up, and that could prove disruptive. There are merits, after all, to instability and unpredictability.

The Defense Department's leadership has been more outspoken recently on the pace of change in threats. Frank Kendall, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, has expressed concern that U.S. superiority in defense technology can no longer be taken for granted. At an event in January hosted by the Center for New American Security, Kendall noted that the U.S. has a “significant lead” in some areas, including the F-35 fighter jet and an advantage in nuclear submarines. But he cautions that “other people are doing quite well” in ballistic and cruise missiles, while electronic warfare is a “very close race” and vulnerabilities are emerging in space. “I don't think we should be complacent at this time,” Kendall said.

That very same day, Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, 3rd, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, was asked at the Surface Navy Association meeting about China's test of a hypersonic vehicle. “The fact that they would be able to go rapidly with the injection of technology—they're better at that than we are,” he replied. “They get to it faster. Of course they have different processes that allow them to get to it faster.”

And, finally, in his Feb. 24 briefing on the fiscal 2015 U.S. budget, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the “development and proliferation of more advanced military technologies by other nations means that we are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can longer be taken for granted.”

Velocity of change in defense is hardly new. The U.S. dealt with it constantly during the Cold War as it tried to anticipate and react to weapons that were fielded by the Soviet Union. More recently, in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. has adopted far shorter acquisition processes to address rapidly changing threats posed by improvised explosive devices.

Kendall and Locklear note that the period of U.S. dominance where perfection in acquisition programs could override necessity may be coming to a close. Still, it is hardly clear that Pentagon clocks have been adjusted for these developments. At the Air Force Association's recent Air Warfare Symposium and Technology Exposition, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said it was time to start proceeding with a sixth-generation fighter. But initial operating capability of a new aircraft would not be until the 2030s.

At the same symposium, Textron Chairman and CEO Scott Donnelly addressed the issue of change and adaptability. “Technology that takes 20, 30 years to get to the field just won't cut it,” he noted during a panel appearance. “As we go forward the world changes too fast, the threats change to too fast.”

Donnelly conceded that long development times may be required for certain weapons systems, such as a ballistic missile submarine. But he believes such exceptions would be appropriate for just 20% of weapons programs.

What are the Defense Department's options to dealing with velocity of change? The first is, of course, to do nothing but proceed with processes and habits now in place. If Kendall and Locklear are right, however, and U.S. superiority is at risk because of more competent, agile defense competitors, there is a risk of a nasty surprise. This might be akin to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957, which sent shockwaves through national security assessments. Worse, it could be revealed in the failure of U.S.-made weapons in a conflict.

More concrete steps could be taken to accelerate change, including more funding for research, development, test and evaluation at the expense of some of the larger iconic weapons programs now in production.

Prototyping could be used more frequently. Contractors need to have programs to demonstrate weapons and systems on which their investments can earn a return, and not just a pat on the head.

Of course these changes will be resisted, particularly by proponents of programs that could be threatened by accelerated change. But if adversaries are moving faster, the Pentagon risks being a victim—and not a master—of change.

Contributing columnist Byron Callan is a director at Capital Alpha Partners in Washington.