WASHINGTON — Former Senate Armed Services Committee staff director Christian Brose will become the head of strategy for Anduril Industries, a one-year-old Silicon Valley tech firm started by Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey and Founders Fund partner Trae Stephens.
Brose, a former speechwriter for to former secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, led the SASC’s staff under Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. for four years. He left in September when the incoming chairman, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., was formally seated.
While it’s not uncommon for armed services staffers to migrate between Capitol Hill, the Pentagon and industry, it’s notable that Brose is not headed to a prime contractor such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin. He sees the move to Anduril as a continuation of his work to bridge the divide between the U.S. military, as it seeks disruptive innovation, and Silicon Valley, which prides itself on new technologies but has pockets of companies hesitant to do business with the Pentagon.
“At a time when some of the technology community is running away from doing work with the Department of Defense and national security, Anduril is running in the opposite direction,” Brose said in an exclusive interview with Defense News. “They believe it’s important, they believe it’s right, they believe in the mission. And that’s exactly what I’ve been trying to do during my time in the government—to bring these communities together."
A next-generation defense company based in Orange County, California, Anduril’s marquee product is a real-time battlefield awareness technology called Lattice that fuses virtual reality with surveillance tools, mesh networking and artificial intelligence. Part of Anduril’s pitch is its competitive pricing; Its website claims its sensor towers cost less per mile than chain-link fencing.
Anduril has already demonstrated Lattice to the U.S. Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton, showing how a small “heli-drone” can perform coastline monitoring, and to the Department of Homeland Security, as “a complement to-or substitute for-much of President Trump’s promised physical wall along the border with Mexico,” according to Wired.
Brose said he was attracted to the leadership team’s demonstrated ability to build technologies, scale them and build companies around them.
“The company’s existed a year, and they already have systems that have been built and fielded right now,” Brose said. “This isn’t the classic play, ‘Give us billions of dollars and 10 years, and we’ll promise we’ll build you something.’ They have developed systems, and they’re going out and solving problems with them.”
Outliers and disruptors
While Brose and a company spokesman stressed the Anduril’s leadership roster reflects a diverse array of political views, the company’s leadership team features a nexus of conservative politics that plays against the Silicon Valley stereotype and an aggressive approach that rankles the often buttoned-up defense community in Washington D.C.
Anduril’s CEO Brian Schimpf and COO Matthew Grimm came from Palantir, a data storage and analysis company. (The Army capped a notorious legal battle with Palantir by awarding it a contract this year to fix the service’s struggling intelligence analysis system.) The company’s other co-founder is Joe Chen, a military veteran and one of Oculus' first employees.
In addition, Anduril’s lead investor is Founders Fund, the venture capital firm headed by Peter Thiel, a prominent Trump supporter. Stephens served on Trump’s defense transition team and also comes from Palantir.
Luckey sold the virtual reality company Oculus to Facebook, and then left Facebook amid controversy over a $10,000 donation in 2016 to Nimble America, a group that The New York Times described as a “pro-Trump nonprofit.”
In August, Luckey and Stephens co-authored a Washington Post op-ed chastising “Silicon Valley’s rising hostility toward working with Washington,” exemplified by Google’s decision to withdraw from a Pentagon contract for an AI program called Project Maven.
“When U.S. tech companies — which have profoundly benefited from the liberties and protections of operating in the United States — shun working with their own government, they do not freeze the global race for defense technology,” the two wrote. “They simply make the path easier for the United States’ adversaries by default — or worse, by actively collaborating with countries such as China. Whether through action or inaction, companies choose sides.”
Speaking to Defense News, Brose offered a complementary view. Google, he said, is not emblematic of all Silicon Valley firms he came in contact with while at the committee, and many want to work with the government — not only because of the market it represents but because they believe it’s the right thing to do.
“Maybe more compelling is that these folks are engineers and what inspired them in the first place is they are drawn to solving hard problems. The Department of Defense has nothing if not hard problems,” Brose said.
It’s changing slowly, but in the past the Defense Department and Congress together made it difficult for the military to access emerging technologies. Handcuffed by its development cycle, the United States is now in peril of being outpaced by its adversaries, Brose said.
“It’s the accumulation of policies and offices and statutes to ensure that we optimize ourselves for efficiency, that we ensure bad things never happen when it comes to the kind of risks you need to run when you need to develop technology and field it,” Brose said. “We’ve so overshot that target that we’re on the opposite side of the problem, where it takes us forever to do anything, and by the time we do it, it’s largely been overtaken by events.”
As the Defense Department has gained new authorities and bipartisan political support to change the way it accesses new technologies, Brose said the challenge will be for America’s political and military leaders to actually take the leap.
“We need to be willing to run risks to move faster,” Brose said. “Those risks will entail programs failing, maybe not the most efficient allocation of resources. But to me, maybe that’s a price we have to pay to move quickly.”
Joining Anduril as head of strategy, Brose hopes to guide investment in disruptive technologies, such as artificial intelligence, in order to solve national security problems. But this time, it’s from the other side of the equation. He is also writing a book on the topic.
“My central concern is we’re not moving fast enough,” he said. “The biggest challenge is us and our desire to remain wedded to business as usual.”
Joe Gould is the Congress and industry reporter at Defense News, covering defense budget and policy matters on Capitol Hill as well as industry news.