NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. – U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis wants to open lines of communication between industry and the Pentagon, in what he described as a common-sense approach to increasing lethality in the military.
Mattis, in comments made at the Air Force Association National Convention, said the Pentagon often self-imposes rules about not talking to industry that are beyond what is required by law, and encouraged the audience to have a more free-wheeling communication to the defense industrial base.
“When I came into the job, I met with a bunch of folks in industry. First of all, I became aware that some people thought ‘you can’t really do that,’ and I said, ‘why not, they’re Americans, aren’t they? Last time I checked, they were on our side,’” Mattis said.
DoD officials need to avoid showing favoritism to one company over another and follow all the legal guidelines, the secretary said. But the idea that top officials can’t sit down with top industry brains to understand what technological options are out there is one that hurts the Pentagon, he argued.
“I think the most important thing is we open the lines of communication, in a way that considers industry – American industry, and allied industry where it’s appropriate – as partners in this effort,” he continued. “I think the most important thing is to get the communication going again in the areas where it languished.”
Which isn’t to say industry lacks a voice in the Pentagon. In certain areas, such as research and development with traditional industry partners, communication is working well, the secretary argued. But the Pentagon, and particularly the services, seem to put self-restrictions on dealing with industry that hurt more than help.
“I want to encourage all of you, strictly within the ethical regulations: do not have imaginary legal restrictions on your leadership responsibility to find the best bang for the buck, the most far reaching innovations that are out there.”
The comments came in response to a question from Whit Peters, the former Air Force Secretary who now chairs the AFA board, on increasing tied with industry. During his comments, Mattis received loud applause from the industry-heavy event.
Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter was known as a technocrat and a major fan of Silicon Valley. While Mattis is not often described that way, he did spend three years in the Valley, an experience he said reminds him “just how innovative America is.”
That has shown in Mattis’ support for the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental (DIUx), the Carter-created tech sector outreach program. Mattis recently visited DIUx headquarters in California and voiced his belief that the group is key to moving the Pentagon into the 21st century.
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.