The Military Woos Silicon Valley

Good luck with that

The Military Woos Silicon Valley The Military Woos Silicon Valley
In late August, the U.S. Defense Department opened the doors of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental near Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, at... The Military Woos Silicon Valley

In late August, the U.S. Defense Department opened the doors of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental near Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, at the southern tip of the San Francisco Bay.

It’s an strategic location — the building’s few workers are minutes away from all the major tech businesses in the area.

So what is DIUx?

According to the new department’s website, the fledgling Pentagon startup “will help to cultivate and facilitate a lasting relationship with new innovators, initially in Silicon Valley, and those who don’t always work with DoD, to help expand its innovative ecosystem of ideas.”

DIUx appears to be a special DoD envoy to Silicon Valley — an odd hybrid of government laboratory like Sandia, pseudo-government think tank like RAND and Silicon Valley liaison. It’s a military embassy in the heart of the liberal West dressed up to look like a tech startup.

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So what does DIUx actually do?

That’s a good question. One that wasn’t clearly answered when DIUx director George Duchak spoke at a drone conference earlier in October. In a rhetorical move reminiscent of both the Pentagon and Silicon Valley, Duchak spoke in vague terms.

“We’re going to try to a variety of different ways to engage DoD and to engage the startup community and the innovation community,” he said. “The key word in DIUx is experiment. We are, as Sec. Carter calls us, his start up.”

“What we want to take back to the secretary is to show him we’re up and operating, and we’re immersed in the ecosystem, and the natives there view DoD as part of their ecosystem … that would be a raging success right there.”

More plainly, the Pentagon wants to tap into tech startups that develop products faster than established mega-contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Leidos or Northrop Grumman — builder of the new Long Range Strike Bomber.

At least that’s the theory.

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Defense Secretary Ashton Carter in Moffett Field, California on Aug. 28, 2015. DIUx photo

Google won’t be building any bombers. But if the military needs, say, software for a cybersecurity or radio network, then Silicon Valley firms could turn the project around quickly. The flip side is that the Pentagon tends to buy equipment to last, for very good reasons.

The military is a bureaucracy, with all the attendant consequences. Long-term planning gave the United States the B-52 Stratofortress, still flying 50 years after entering active service. The downside is that the military is slow to fix technological vulnerabilities when they crop up.

And the problem with start-ups is … a lot of them are too focused on the short term. The Pentagon’s push into Silicon Valley has even caused a minor uproar in the defense industry — with companies arguing, in effect, that the geeks don’t know what they’re doing.

The counter-argument is that the established companies have an interest in protecting their contracts, and see the tech start-ups as a threat.

“Silicon Valley folks? Their main focus is on speed to market,” Michael Daly, chief technology officer for Raytheon Cybersecurity and Special Missions, told Politico in July.

“When you’re making technology in the defense market, you also have to address other aspects, including mission assurance, acquisition compliance — these things are important … there’s an overhead to that.”

Breaking Defense reporter Sydney Freedberg, Jr. spoke with Duchak after his speech and pressed the director for answers. Duchak continued to talk — albeit vaguely — about the Pentagon’s efforts. “We make matches,” he explained. “We just don’t make investments.”

According to Duchak, his strategy is working. Corporations, for instance, are becoming an increasing target of state-sponsored cyber espionage. As author and futurist Peter Singer has noted, the boundaries between the startup world and warfare are likely to blur.

“The large companies, I’ve seen a sea change in their willingness to work with DoD. I’m going to say probably since the Sony hack,” Duchak told Freedberg. “I think they see that…working with the U.S. government has some benefit to protect some of the things that they’re doing.”

“Google’s been very receptive,” he said. “Not so much with Apple.”

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