Regaining our edge in the defense technology arms race
Special to Stars and Stripes January 4, 2023
The continued chasm between the Pentagon and Silicon Valley is much more than just a cultural difference — it’s a threat to national security at a time when our adversaries are leaning into the technology arms race.
While the Department of Defense has made some important changes to legacy processes and introduced new funding lines, these changes have not been fast or aggressive enough to significantly alter the technology arms race landscape. The secretary of defense recently announced the creation of the Office of Strategic Capital, which would work across policy, acquisition and research efforts to increase the amount of capital available to critical technology companies. While this is an important step in expanding cooperation with the private sector, DOD must go much further to remove some of the most common barriers to entry for small, multi-use tech companies. The procurement process urgently needs to be reformed, which cannot happen unless Congress dedicates funding and legislative support to bring potential remedies to life.
In search of such a remedy, we should look no further than Israel, a country that has excelled in its own technology arms race and also happens to be one of our most important global partners. Last month, Defense undersecretary Colin Kahl traveled there and according to the official statement, “visited some of Israel’s most innovative defense technology companies to see demonstrations of cutting-edge emerging and critical capabilities.” It is heartening that our current Defense leadership is exhibiting the potential for outside-the-box thinking. In fact, it is sorely needed.
One option they are hopefully considering replicating is the Israeli closed box, joint testing and incubator space focused on addressing the most pressing military requirements. The Israeli Defense Forces created this capability years ago as part of its famed unit 8200, and has modified it and more recently taken it public. Israel’s model provides startups with grant funding to lay the groundwork for transitioning promising technologies into the defense sector. These targeted technologies range from artificial intelligence applications for engineering design optimization in machinery, electronics, construction and other fields, to innovations that reduce food spoilage.
Moreover, this unit has historically been staffed with the most creative minds from across their military services, and its leadership has been granted the authority to take new ideas forward through testing and validation exercises. This creates a mutually-beneficial system for all parties: not only do dual-use tech startups receive access to a network of investors and industry leaders, they have the opportunity to implement their solutions in real-world scenarios with the Israeli military, making the technology more effective when it ultimately sees the light of day on the battlefield.
Although this model would be quite painful for many DOD leaders, who can be reluctant to relinquish decision-making power and defer to those further down their chains of command with more relevant technical expertise, it could reduce and potentially remove some of the most common barriers to entry for small, multi-use tech companies. Both public servants and defense contractors dread what is referred to in government contracting circles as “crossing Death Valley” — the lengthy period a private sector vendor is required to pass through when transforming a prototype or commercially available product to a DOD contract. While many factors make this transition difficult for small, multi-use technology companies, rigorous (and backlogged) security clearance processes and expensive cybersecurity certifications are some of the most significant impediments.
The DOD’s bureaucratic processes also stand in the way of attracting and retaining top talent writ large. While there is value to the order and stability that our bureaucracy provides, it’s no secret that most of our nation’s best and brightest engineers, scientists and technologists eschew government service in favor of private sector opportunities with flatter organizational structures and better compensation. A closed box, joint testing and incubator space would allow the DOD to quickly capitalize on the top talent that flocks to smaller, private industry, dual-use tech firms that are not traditional sources for U.S. military procurement.
Consider the alternative status quo: our adversaries continue developing advanced artificial intelligence, quantum computing and cyber technologies, in addition to sophisticated weapons systems like hypersonic missiles without self-imposed bureaucratic walls between the public and private sectors. Meanwhile, small, dual-use tech startups in the U.S. are stuck waiting for a Facilities Security Clearance before they can get a government contract with any sort of research and development funding. Since these startups cannot afford to wait years for government work, they shift their focus to commercial applications for their technologies. As a result, the DOD continues to lose out on partners who have reach and situational awareness to advance innovation in areas like cybersecurity — especially given that the federal government does not own or operate the majority of cyber infrastructure.
To win this new arms race, our government must remove critical existential hurdles for private sector partners working to develop multi-use technologies. Standing up a closed box, joint testing and incubator space can remove barriers to entry more rapidly, and encourage small companies with cutting-edge technologies to continue engagement with the DOD. With our adversaries advancing their technical capabilities at a rapid pace, our military falls farther behind every year as it continues to sideline our most creative and innovative private sector partners. This new Congress has a significant opportunity for a bipartisan effort to address this great challenge, and there is no time to waste.
Simone Ledeen is a managing director at Vantage ROI and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East. She is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Krach Institute for Tech Diplomacy at Purdue.