Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall giving a keynote address at the Air Force Association event at the Gaylord Hotel, National Harbor, Maryland on September 17, 2014. DoD photo by Casper Manlangit
WASHINGTON — The US Department of Defense needs to do a better job of engaging Silicon Valley in its acquisition process if the US is to maintain its military technology superiority, Pentagon acquisition head Frank Kendall said Monday.
Speaking at an event at The Brookings Institution, Kendall touted the potential of the Pentagon's new Better Buying Power 3.0 program, which officials unveiled last week.
"3.0 is a focus on a culture of technical excellence," he said, adding saying that the reform effort would not be a radically reshapeing of the acquisition process. "This is more about continuity than it is about change. The idea here is a shift in emphasis, not a fundamental break with what we've done in the past."
Technology poses a particular challenge, because the DoD's structure does not make it attractive to many American technology companies, he said. For Silicon Valley giants with global reach, working with the DoD may not be worth the trouble.
"We don't have enough business to make them excited," Kendall said. Smaller start-ups, where lots of innovation happens, are often put off by the red tape that comes with working with the Pentagon, he said.
"At the end of the day, we have to provide them with an incentive to do business with us," he said.
Kendall pointed to the F-35 joint strike fighter as an example of where the DoD's slow-moving development process was can be outstripped by progress in the private sector. Three times during the fighter's decades-long development, the project needed technology refreshes to keep it up to date with commercial developments.
Bill Lynn, III, the CEO of Finmeccanica North America and DRS Technologies, Inc., said that in the first half of the post-Cold War period, the DoD was a "net exporter" to the private sector of technologies it had developed in-house, like GPS and early Internet breakthroughs. In recent years, the Pentagon has become a net importer of technology that it makes and making it operational for a defense applications, with the private sector taking the lead in 3-D printing, nanotechnology and IT, the former deputy secretary of defense said.
"We're just not agile enough, we're not fast enough, we're not modular enough" when it comes to military information technology, Lynn said.
Jason Tama, a US Coast Guard commander who is also a Brookings fellow, said part of the issue is was the cultural divide between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon. In the private sector, entrepreneurs foster "a culture of trying lots of things and failing fast and failing often," he said, which allows them to quickly get past ideas that don't work to ones to ones that do. Too often on large military contracts, developers invest up front in meeting the program's requirements, then move forward.
There are 150,000 people working in defense acquisition, 90 percent of whom are civilians. Roughly three-fifths of the DoD's acquisition employees are between the ages of 40 and 60, putting its workforce out of step with the private sector's workforce, Tama said.
"If you want top talent on a technical level, you're not going to build that on the inside of the US government," he said.