Secretary Carter Wires in to Silicon Valley
By: Andrew Hunter
Defense Secretary Ash Carter is changing the Pentagon’s approach to innovation. Cutting-edge technological advances are increasingly driven by commercial companies and 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 DoD’s needs 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 overseas firms and among firms that have not traditionally supplied DoD.
To address this trend, Secretary Carter announced that DoD will establish an office in Silicon Valley specifically designed to interface with high-tech firms that are not traditional suppliers. It will be known as Defense Innovation Unit X. He is also proposing to increase the number of the department’s military and civilian personnel who 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. Plus, Secretary Carter wants to expand the department’s ability to do technology horizon scanning by increasing its involvement in the venture capital world though approaches such as the CIA’s In-Q-Tel.
These initiatives can help DoD innovate, especially when combined with related efforts such as the Better Buying Power 3.0 initiative and the Defense Innovation Initiative. 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 huge challenge in sharing that knowledge with all of the military stakeholders 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. The innovation push the Pentagon has started will require continued priority and top-level engagement over the long term to be successful. Cultural barriers to commercialization and internationalization within DoD and Congress will also need to give way.
It is too early to tell if the high-tech industry will get on board. Secretary Carter’s willingness to engage personally with Silicon Valley is an important step. He emphasized the importance of protecting intellectual property, a key message the high-tech industry needs to hear. But given that the target audience is literally thousands of small, innovative firms, it may take some time before the industry response is clear.