Secretary Carter Wires in to Silicon Valley
April 24, 2015
Q1: What are the fundamental changes in the high-tech world that have led Defense Secretary Ash Carter to work to “rewire” the Pentagon’s approach to innovation?
A1: Cutting-edge technological advances are being increasingly driven by commercial companies and by private investment. This is a world-wide phenomenon that means that high tech is both more commercial and more global than in the past. The share of global research and development (R&D) that is directed explicitly to the needs of the Department of Defense (DOD) is now 4 percent, a low point in the post–World War II era. Although sequestration has significantly hurt defense R&D, the trend predates sequestration, and it is largely caused by the private sector increasing its R&D spending in response to the demand for new technology in the global marketplace. This means that the preponderance of technology development, much of it with direct national security applications, is happening among firms that are not traditional suppliers to DOD and many of which are located overseas. Secretary Carter is seeking to tackle the challenge DOD faces in gaining awareness of and access to the technologies being developed by these firms.
Q2: What is Secretary Carter proposing to do to address this trend?
A2: Today Secretary Carter announced that DOD will establish an office specifically designed to interface with high-tech firms that are not traditional suppliers and that this office will be located in Silicon Valley and known as Defense Innovation Unit X. He is also proposing to increase the number of the department’s military and civilian personnel that are embedded with industry, including nontraditional suppliers, to gain direct insight into what is happening in industry and how it can be applied to national security problems. He’s also looking to expand the department’s ability to do technology horizon scanning by increasing its involvement in the venture capital world through approaches like the CIA’s In-Q-Tel.
Q3: Will these initiatives get the job done?
A3: The initiatives announced today can help, but they must be seen in the context of other efforts underway at DOD to advance U.S. technology superiority, such as the recently finalized Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative (discussed here) and the related Defense Innovation Initiative. Taken as a whole, these measures represent a serious effort to increase DOD’s access to innovation, but the challenge is steep. So much of what’s happening in the high-tech world is outside DOD’s purview, and there are some important players in the high-tech industry who might like to keep it that way. Where DOD does manage to get visibility into a new technology development, there is a big challenge in sharing that knowledge with all of the stakeholders in the military whose buy-in is needed to turn technology into capability. And there remain big challenges in actually incorporating commercial technologies into military inventories and maintaining currency with the cutting edge over time. The innovation push the department has started will require continued priority and top level engagement for a long time if it is to be successful. Several cultural barriers within DOD and Congress will also need to give way, at least partially, to create the space needed to capitalize on innovation.
Q4: Will industry lean in?
A4: It’s definitely too early to tell if the high-tech industry will lean in and work with DOD on innovation. Certainly Secretary Carter’s willingness to engage directly with Silicon Valley is an important step. His remarks about the importance of protecting industry’s intellectual property were also a key message that the high-tech industry needs to hear. But given that the target audience for these messages is literally thousands of small, innovative firms, there likely won’t be a clear answer to this question for some time.
Andrew Hunter is director of the Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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