WASHINGTON — General Dynamics head Phebe Novakovic this week said she was “alarmed” by members of Silicon Valley who refuse to work with the Pentagon, in perhaps the most pointed comments from a defense company CEO toward colleagues in the tech community.
Asked at a Tuesday event hosted by the Boston College Chief Executives Club, Novakovic was asked whether she felt big Silicon Valley tech companies should do more to help or work with the defense industry. Her response was unequivocal.
“Yes. And I’m frankly alarmed when I see some companies to whom much is given not willing to work with the U.S. government,” said Novakovic, who worked at the CIA and Pentagon before moving to GD.
“Who do they think provides them this freedom? Who do they think the platform for their technology innovation comes from? It comes from security and stability of this nation. So I find, as an American, that’s troubling.”
That sentiment has not been unusual around the Pentagon in the wake of last year’s decision by Google to pull out of its Project Maven contract with the department, following an open letter by members of the company who felt the tech giant should not be involved in defense programs.
The issue was brought to the forefront once again in March, when Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford directly challenged Google on its willingness to work with China but not the Pentagon. Like Novakovic, he argued that Silicon Valley has only reached its level of success because “our system of government in enabling of individual ideas to bubble up and advance the world, whether it’s medically, education, artificial intelligence, you name it.”
But leaders from the largest defense firms have largely stayed above the fray, likely in part to the fact many of them do business with other technology firms in one way or another. Novakovic acknowledged that reality, saying “there are real opportunities for cooperation, and many of those companies do cooperate." She also noted that GD has an office in the Silicon Valley area.
“I think it’s our job as I was talking about earlier to canvass throughout the United States and take that rich body of research that we produce as a nation every year and figure out how do we make that work to enhance our national security,” she said.
Novakovic was similarly direct earlier in the event, when asked to identify the top threats to the nation. While acknowledging near-peer competitors as a challenge, she saved her most pointed comments for an internal challenge.
“I worry, as an American, I worry profoundly about our divisiveness as a nation. Democracy requires shared values, and I don’t see that we have — we’re not having a national narrative about our shared values. There’s too much anger and hatred,” she said. “I worry a lot about the corrosive and cancerous effects of all that anger and hatred, sometimes flat out hatred. And that, I think, is scary.
“You can destroy yourself much faster than an enemy can. Typically great empires fall from the inside out. I worry an awful lot about that at the same time as I worry about some other serious threats. That’s something we need to have a national dialogue about.”
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.