Seeking Answers, Defense Builds Bridge to Silicon Valley

An article in the February 10 edition of Foreign Policy magazine powerfully describes the dynamic that eventually led Defense Sec. Ashton Carter to visit Silicon Valley last Friday in search of a bridge between the valley’s innovators and Washington’s bureaucracy.

Army Col. Peter Newell spoke with a Google executive in Mountain View, California, and said “We had a great discussion, with great ideas, and eventually I said to him, ‘How much would it cost you to do X, Y and Z?’ ” “And the guy laughed.”

On a white board, the Google executive drew a big circle and put a dot in the middle. “This is your budget,” he said pointing at the dot. “The big circle? It’s mine. I don’t want your money. I want your problem.”

That meeting is one example of why the Department of Defense established the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) at Mountain View, bringing problems to California that need solutions.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Secretary Carter is aggressively reaching out to the commercial technology community:

“I’ve been pushing the Pentagon to think outside our five-sided box and invest in innovation here in Silicon Valley and in tech communities across the country,” Carter said Friday. “Now we’re taking another step forward.”

But the DoD isn’t going to Silicon Valley just for technology. The Pentagon is in search of ideas, and the California innovators suggest that the first step is to fix an acquisition process designed for ships, tanks and airplanes, not information technology, in a risk-averse, politically driven culture.

In the Foreign Policy article, former deputy defense secretary William Lynn noted that the Pentagon took 81 months to field a new computer system. Apple developed the iPhone in 24.

The DIUx program clearly isn’t just seeking technological innovation. It also hopes to find procedural and capitalization insight. Establishing the DIUx office is just the latest example of a paradigm shift from a time when the DoD drove innovation, with the commercial sector taking advantage of adapted technology. For the past decade or more, the innovation process has reversed. Commercial use drives innovation now, and the Pentagon seeks “COTS” (commercial off-the-shelf) solutions.

For example, over the past three years, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Defense Intelligence Information Enterprise has held day-long sessions in which innovators have been invited to demonstrate technology, alone and in combination with other companies, in hopes of it being included in a catalogue of approved COTS answers for DoD questions.

When the Central Intelligence Agency agreed to spend $600 million on Amazon cloud services, the decision was heralded as a breakthrough, both for government procurement and for the intelligence community’s use of the cloud.

Only in recent years has the DoD begun to adopt more of a COTS mentality when it comes to space communications. Until the early 2000s, the Pentagon relied almost entirely on its own satellite constellations for military communications. Now the DoD buys as much as 80 percent of its communications satellite capacity from commercial sources that are developing new and more capable technology.

In fact, David Madden, executive director of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, recently was quoted as saying that commercial could take over day-to-day operations for military satellite systems:

I’m hoping 2016 is going to be the year we finally take the command and control for WGS and move it over to a commercial service,” Madden said.

And the Air Force is seriously exploring outsourcing command and control of the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN) to the commercial sector.

Merely establishing an office in Silicon Valley isn’t going to change the skepticism with which each end of the bridge views the other. Nor will easier acquisition procedures passed by Congress mean the DoD can made a dramatic shift in how and where it buys IT services.

When California innovators fail before they succeed, they are accountable only to investors. Answering to Congress and taxpayers is an entirely different dynamic, and the DoD will likely move cautiously as new ideas emerge because of the new DIUx office in California.

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