Will there come a day when defense contractors update weapons systems as rapidly as Apple rolls out new versions of its iPhone? That is tough to imagine, considering that the first F-35 variant is just now heading toward initial operating capability nearly 14 years after contract award to Lockheed Martin. But Chris Chadwick thinks the aerospace industry can do a lot better.

Chadwick, president and CEO of Boeing Defense, Space & Security, certainly seems to grasp that with so much innovation being rapidly spawned by the Googles of the world, “business as usual” won’t cut it for traditional defense contractors. “If you look at industry over the last 10-20 years, there hasn’t been a whole lot of getting it right on development programs,” he said during a roundtable meeting with Aviation Week editors this month. “They tend to be late and over cost. It’s easy to blame others, but the fact is we’ve got to look in the mirror.”

SpaceX’s shake-up of the launch industry is just the tip of the spear. Traditional defense contractors face challenges from more nimble companies in fields such as cyber, satellite services, autonomy and data analytics, notes Byron Callan, a longtime defense analyst and Aviation Week columnist. Chadwick says Boeing’s defense business—which saw its sales decline 7% last year, to just under $31 billion—is up to the challenge. He’s fond of pointing to Phantom Fusion, a flexible software architecture that can be rapidly upgraded: “It’s an innovation that allows us to change the makeup of today’s weapons systems and tomorrow’s much in the same way as an iPhone.”

Industry lobbyists complain that it is not easy for defense contractors to compete with the commercial world when they are hamstrung by arcane Pentagon acquisition rules, a dysfunctional U.S. Congress and alleged caps on their profits. But Chadwick does not hide behind any of that when asked what is the biggest impediment to speeding up innovation in weapons systems. “The biggest roadblock is industry itself,” he says. Contractors need to get ahead of the customer, “understand their needs [and] show them the art of the possible from an innovation perspective,” be it a prototype or a new technology, he adds.

Boeing’s defense challenges run beyond the usual concerns about tight government budgets. Production of the C-17 transport is ending, and the F/A-18 fighter, which first flew in 1978, is getting old. Boeing prevailed over Airbus in the bitter battle to win the U.S. Air Force’s tanker contract, but the KC-46 is behind schedule, and Boeing had to take a $425 million charge on the program last year. And the jury is out whether a Boeing/Lockheed Martin team will prevail over Northrop Grumman for the classified Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), the biggest U.S. Air Force contract expected for years to come.

Then there are Wall Street’s demands for profits. Jim McAleese, a defense consultant with ties to the Pentagon, recently wrote in a review of Boeing’s earnings that pressure to meet a $9 billion cash flow target this year is so intense that “severe cost-cutting” at Defense & Space “is now tolerable, even at the risk of impacting the ‘must win’ LRS-B award.” But Chadwick dismisses the notion that Boeing is more focused on margins than winning LRS-B. “Jim is a friend and provides a very good perspective on the aerospace and defense business,” he says when asked about McAleese’s comments. “But I’d say he got that one wrong.”

Boeing’s long-term commitment to space launch also bears watching. Chadwick maintains that the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Boeing-Lockheed partnership, is a “rock-solid business.” But as the U.S. government moves to procure a new generation of boosters, Callan says it will be interesting to see how Boeing views ULA’s ability to compete with SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket “and whether Boeing will be investing in the Vulcan launch vehicles that will replace Atlas V and Delta IV next decade.”

Can a leopard really change its spots? Boeing’s latest reorganization—just 78 days old when Chadwick spoke with us—has not had time to yield big results. It is aimed at centralizing development programs and providing more visibility across the company’s defense, space and commercial businesses. Separately, the company’s Phantom Works operation has been moved center stage to manage next-generation opportunities such as the Phantom Eye high-altitude, long-endurance liquid hydrogen-powered unmanned aerial system (see photo).

Following Chadwick’s career trajectory, none of this should come as a surprise. He is a program manager at heart, and the new organization shows it by dividing the business into stages—create, develop, build and sustain—while baking in expertise and the ability to pull in technological advancements along the way. Reorganizing business units “is not really exciting,” he concedes. “But it’s going to fundamentally change how we perform, how we innovate and how we deliver and support.”