If Secretary of Defense Ash Carter did a Google search for who would make the biggest splash as the head of the Pentagon’s new innovation panel from Silicon Valley, he couldn’t have gotten a better answer than the executive chairman of the eponymous search engine’s parent company, Eric Schmidt. The move announced at the RSA cyber security confab in San Francisco makes clear to the Beltway the military is serious about closing its innovation gap with the commercial sector by reestablishing ties to the Bay Area’s tech heartland.
Yet if the Defense Department’s innovation scouts get too focused on the corridor between San Francisco and San Jose, they risk missing out on existing or nascent technologies from America’s other innovation hubs.
The following is a piece on defense-industrial innovation that I co-wrote with Tim Wickham, a managing director at Avascent, where I am writer-in-residence:
Red tape, secrecy and politics. These are not things that innovative technology firms want to be known for in Silicon Valley.
These are some of the defense sector’s many burdens as it works to develop a strategic and military advantage for America that can withstand the 21st Century’s breakneck pace of technological change. The Defense Department spends hundreds of billions of dollars annually on weapons systems that are the envy of the world’s militaries, yet still finds itself falling behind the curve.
With renewed support from top officials worried about the future of the American military, the Pentagon is looking beyond the defense establishment as it searches for technologies that will give it a decisive operational edge. Incoming Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter has a chance to own this initiative given his stint as the department’s top weapons buyer, and the fact that he was working in Silicon Valley before being nominated for the Pentagon’s top job in early December. Whether he is successful depends on something that so far is missing from the Pentagon’s pitch to those working on America’s technological future: the value proposition.
The national security establishment is currently facing criticism for a perceived failure to anticipate Russia’s actions in Ukraine, the capture of a swathe of Iraqi territory by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and the political upheaval of the Arab Spring. The American public expects its leaders to be prepared for such contingencies while also addressing familiar challenges, like terrorism or China’s increasing assertiveness.
The breadth and rising tempo of potential crises, coupled with fiscal constraints, means that national security leaders can’t hope to be fully prepared for all contingencies. But continually focusing on the problem of the day creates blind spots when it comes to low likelihood but extremely disruptive factors. It is one thing to be caught off guard by the anticipatable actions of a nation or even a non-state actor; it is far more serious to be surprised by a new method of warfare.
If there was ever a time to be on guard against disruptions that can upend America’s strategic position, it is now.
At least we all wore ties.
For writers and entertainment producers, such formality is a rare thing. But at a recent Atlantic Council event on art and the future of warfare, the seriousness of the subject warranted it. Joining award-winning science fiction author David Brin and Dave Anthony, producer of the blockbuster video game Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, our intent was to share how we viewed the future of warfare and what the creative cadre could do to help sharpen the thinking of creating alternative futures. One of the best steps is to take a closely held assumption and turn it on its head. Doing so should be both uncomfortable and exciting, and made easier by envisioning a world 30 years out, rather than 10 years.
As the 21st Century so far proved again and again, surprise is no longer a surprise. Moreover, how many times has somebody said out loud while reading a news headline, “You can’t make this up!” That is our future, and it is one that will require greater discipline, creativity and agility from the national security community. It is a concept the Atlantic Council takes seriously through its Strategic Foresight initiative, and it is worth paying close attention to.
In sport, it is harder to imagine equipment with a tougher life than a hockey puck. It survives on the ice because it is made from rubber. To an engineer like Dr. Peter Wegner, former head of the Defense Department’s Office of Operationally Responsive Space, it is a perfect model of resilience. An understanding of resilience is especially important when it comes to America’s national security policy toward military and commercial satellites.
Dr. Wegner, currently Director of Advanced Concepts at Utah State University Space Dynamics Laboratory, and Charles Miller, a former NASA advisor who is president of NexGen Space LLC, joined an American Security Project panel in Washington on Thursday to talk about the asymmetric threats to U.S. space assets. It’s a long list, from Chinese anti-satellite missiles to errant space junk to determined hackers. Given how fragile and vulnerable satellites are, and how dependent the military is upon them, America needs a far more robust launch capability in order to replace those systems when they are inevitably damaged or destroyed during a crisis. That has not happened yet, but it is certain to.
One of the abiding questions faced by the Defense Department and US defense industry is how to keep its edge in a fast-paced world where cutting edge consumer-oriented technology, much of it applicable in conflict contexts, gets steadily cheaper and more accessible. Meanwhile, the premier military platforms American armed forces are counting on in the 21st Century are becoming unaffordable and scarcer. Even attempts at buying relatively inexpensive ships such as the Littoral Combat Ship, or adopting unprecedented economies of scale as in the Joint Strike Fighter program, are not showing signs those bets will pay off as originally hoped.
There is another way to approach the problem than a singular focus on productivity, according to retired Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General James Cartwright. The industrial solution to cost-cutting is already at diminishing returns, said Cartwright, and the major savings required will not come from mere tweaks to business-as-usual weapons buying. Something bolder is needed.
“The platform is too slow to respond to a changing world,” he said. “We’ve got to figure out not how to compete with computers, but how man-machine [interface] and computational power start to come together in a way that gives you huge leverage,” said Cartwright.
Money is a funny subject inside the Beltway.
Civil servants get by on proscribed grade-guided salaries that often mean commuting dozens of miles to work while those on Capitol Hill learn to walk with a practiced lean against the steady gale of dollars bending and twisting American politics.
At the same time, the more than $1 billion in taxpayer dollars spent daily on defense and national security is essentially incomprehensible to the average American because of its scale. Among wonks, it is just as easy to get lost in the baroque aspects of Pentagon budgeting. Asking “how much?” instead of “why?” usually dominates conversation, particularly ahead of a full budget rollout, in part because it’s an easier question to answer.Of all the comments that have been made about what’s ahead, it’s worth paying attention to what Acting Deputy Secretary of Defense Christine Fox said Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute. Fox, the former head of the Pentagon’s own office of eagle-eyed budget skeptics, made two important statements, which outsiders might see as contradictory.
When most of us fly, we buckle in, silently grouse at the knee room and put in headphones and tune out for the rest of the trip. We trust the men and women behind the locked doors to be so good at their jobs that we effectively forget they are there. A cursory expression of gratitude as we exit the plane offers a moment of wonder that we flew hundreds, if not thousands, of miles without worrying much about where we were going or whether we were going to get there once the wheels were up.
That kind of blind confidence is unique. Back on the ground, particularly in business, skepticism is the order of the day. That can be especially true in today’s defense industry. Cost estimates are rarely accurate, either from the government or its suppliers. Lateness is acceptable. The politics of spending taxpayer money on weapons systems and wars is as contested as ever, and will be more so as overall acquisitions funding is expected to fall further.
The aviation legacy in the defense business is an important one. The Jet Age roots of today’s companies are intertwined in tales of audacity and precision that mastering emerging technologies required. As the 21st Century enters its second decade after more than 12 years of war, it is a time of searching, not certainty. Continue reading
The Industrial Age’s creations defined much of the thinking about 20th Century warfare. In the opening decades of the 21st Century, the influence of highly metabolic personal technology and electronic media is already unmistakable. Until recently, shipyards and aircraft production lines defined usable national power. Aircraft carriers and fighter still matter but they must share intellectual, and doctrinal, room with hackers and social media campaigns. A new era is upon Washington and the companies that supply the American defense and intelligence community. Power, and its suppliers, must change.
I’ve put up a new essay at Medium.com about the growth of the intelligence business and what the Edward Snowden case means for its future.
“During the Cold War, the heart of the aerospace and defense industry was in Southern California, where Jet Age engineers began remaking the American arsenal. The public kept pace with the change with one eye on the heavens. Overhead, they could look with pride at gleaming jetliners sharing the skies with bombers capable of striking targets inside the Soviet Union.
Since 2001, America’s defense companies evolved to take on new roles that followed an unprecedented increase in spending on private-sector defense services. The cutting edge of the defense business, focusing on the budget-rich intelligence world, has been out of sight for much of the country. The public gets glimpses of this reality, perhaps with an incongruous airplane-maker’s logo in a stale office park in suburban Virginia near the CIA. Amid the shadow wars and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the narrative of conflict and American business became intertwined in the formation of a new era for the defense industry.
Until, in an instant, a super-empowered defense contractor, Edward Snowden, opened a new window into the more than $50 billion world of intelligence contracting.”