WASHINGTON — In August 2015, then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter stood up a new, small office known as the Defense Innovation Unit-Experimental, or DiuX. The office’s goal: to be the point of contact with the commercial technology world and bring that innovation into the Pentagon.
Four secretaries of defense and five years later, the office — which has since lost the “Experimental” tag — is still going strong. Michael Brown, the former CEO of Symantec, took over the office in September 2018. He talked with Defense News on Dec. 10 about the office’s activities and upcoming efforts the Biden administration enters the White House.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Defense Innovation Unit’s job is two-fold: find new technologies from the commercial sector that are applicable for the Pentagon, and then transitioning them into service. The last part has, historically, been tricky. Five years in, how’s it going?
The three-year average of transitioning projects from fiscal 2017 to fiscal 2019 was 35 percent. A lot of organizations would say, “OK, well, that’s good if you’ve transitioned a third,” but we said that’s not good enough. What we found when we took an in-depth look at what was happening was that about 40 percent of projects where the prototype was successful, there was another obstacle to getting in scaled; most often the Department of Defense partner or customer organization didn’t have the money ready to scale it. So [we started thinking] what we need to do upfront when we plan a project before we even take it on — to be thinking about what is the transition plan, how do we write that production contract and is the money in place. And we’ve already seen that transition rate kick up to 43 percent. I think we got every probability of getting that to about 50 percent.
Commercial firms sometimes complain about the Pentagon being too slow. Have you been able to speed up the timeline?
Our target there is 60-90 days to get on contract — one year for a software project and two years for a hardware project. We just had one of our key projects transition in record time, which was one year and a quarter. Another metric would be cost, we’re using commercial technology, we’re saving taxpayer dollars versus creating a bespoke solution. So our goal is to be able to save 10 times our budget. We haven’t been able to do that every year, but we’ve saved a few hundred million per year for the DoD, which is of course a multiple of our small budget. And then another metric we use is: How many new vendors are we bringing in? The reason we were set up is to make sure there’s reach into the venture ecosystem, the innovation ecosystem, to make sure new capabilities are available to the DoD; so 65 first time vendors, and we’re continuing to increase that.
How do you expand the work DIU has already done?
If you kind of zoom back and look at the macro picture, it’s not about how big DIU can become — it’s about how can we really have this flywheel go faster for getting more commercial technology adopted. So part of that is the budget flexibility — we need to move at a different speed than we have historically where it takes two years to plan the next dollar of spending. We have to move faster than that, given the competition that we see with what China’s doing — bringing technology into its military. Of course China has the whole Military-Civil Fusion strategy. We’ve got to basically address that by providing incentives, not by fiat. I don’t want its system, but we both see that probably has some advantages in getting things done more quickly.
Another big factor in this flywheel — having the commercial world see the success of companies and projects so that they’re interested in investing in our needs.
That’s the big question, right? How do you incentivize commercial firms to want to work with the DoD?
We need to be working on commercial time frames. We need to be evaluating commercial vendors. And we need to think about how do we work in their world — not ask them to conform to ours. If we ask companies to conform to the way we work, you get primes. We need more capability than those companies can offer.
The top five tech companies spent 10 times in research and development what the top five primes do, and if we want access to those bigger R&D pools, we’ve got to work the way they know how to work. That means commercial terms, commercial speed, and from an investor point of view, we want those investors to see big opportunity in working with defense so that a few more of the startups and investors are thinking about defense needs [during their designing process]. So that’s my nirvana: We get the flywheel going so that so many companies are seeing success with the DoD that they’re actually thinking about designing for our needs again.
What’s the timetable for getting that cycle of interest from the commercial sector spun up?
That could happen pretty quickly. I mean, DIU and I are very proud of what we’ve achieved, but we’re influencing a little less than 1 percent of the DoD’s procurement. If we had a more concerted effort to have that get up to some appreciable single-digit percentages, it would be a huge increase in what we’re buying commercially. Not everything is going to be commercial, but well more than 1 percent should be. And of course, there’s more being bought commercial than DIU.
I’m not trying to be parochial here and say we’re the only ones buying commercial, but the more that is, the more we influence that investor cycle of the defense market being attractive. That could happen pretty quickly if we started to flow some money through that. I think we could have a much more effective and efficient system to bring new technology in, but we have to scale. That’s much bigger than DIU — the whole department needs to be focused on that.
What projects are you most excited about that will transition in the near term?
We’re going to continue to work on predictive maintenance to make that go across the services. [We’re working] with the Army and the Navy on that right now. What we’ve been able to do with [NORAD/NORTHCOM] with the fusing of sensor data and providing a common operating picture for better decision-making: If you think about it, that’s the guts of what’s in the Joint All-Domain Command and Control concept or the Advanced Battle Management System. That technology is going to continue to have broad applicability, and I won’t be surprised at all as we work on some other projects to see other applications of that basic technology be delivered.
Another one that we’ve been working on for years is time indications and warning. I think this is just right for a transition. That’s a combination of rapid launch capability, which we’ve been helping with some of the prototyping efforts. And then the analysis of the commercial satellite imagery that comes from that, we’re working with some of the vendors that are looking at artificial intelligence- and machine learning-infused algorithms so you can analyze that and enhance what you might be seeing. So that’s an incredible capability if you think about putting all those together, in terms of getting a more real-time view, globally, of what’s happening.
We’ve had quite a few conversations with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command because it’s interested in how to light up what’s been dark to it across the Pacific and Indian oceans. You can see everything from illegal fishing there to — the Coast Guard has been very focused on what are the Chinese are doing to hide the transfer of cargo to North Korean ships — to people preparing for rocket launches; imagine that this really helps create incredible enhancements to situational awareness so that you have an ability to take action. So that’s something that [Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] has expressed a lot of interest in. I could see that coming to transition. We’re trying to figure out the right partners to take that forward.
The COVID-19 pandemic hit a number of commercial sectors hard. Has that impacted any programs or the workload DIU had planned for 2020?
Yeah, I had wondered whether it would slow down or not. But actually our projects were up 50 percent year over year, so our workload has actually increased. In some ways I think people are more productive without all the travel. One thing that helped DIU was we were already using commercial tools and we do our own work on a Google suite. So we didn’t really have any transition like a lot of the Pentagon did.
The sector that had the biggest impact was the space vendor base. This is the sector that, as fewer launches get scheduled, could be in trouble, and we need to provide some additional resources there. You know, 2019 might have been the first year where China had more launches into space than we did, so we need to make sure our vendor base, which is not protected by the government like theirs is, is very vibrant if we want to benefit from all of the innovation that happens and obviously the lower cost that comes from folks pursuing commercial opportunities.
Fortunately for the other portfolio sectors, AI or cyber industries have not been as affected by COVID-19 as other industries were, whether you’re talking about travel or others.
You have some new projects that have spun up because of the pandemic, right?
One of them got funded with some money from the [Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act], and it is called Rapid Analysis of Threat Exposure. This is using digital technology or wearables. It’s a ring and a watch, and what we’ve seen is that these wearables allow you to collect data and make individual predictions based on temperature and heart rate to show if someone is getting sick. We’re working with a couple of vendors in putting the data together, getting several thousand people enrolled in it. We just worked with West Point and the Naval Academy to get [people] signed up. Several folks on the Joint Staff have enrolled, DIU’s enrolled, so we’re building the database out to be able to provide those predictive tools. And imagine how valuable that is if you’ve got to put a crew to sea on a submarine or a ship — we know of the negative consequences there. So we’re enthused about that project.
Another one that we started as a result of COVID-19 we call Clean Sweep, and it’s [about] what we can do with enclosed spaces — again, think of a Navy ship — to disinfect autonomously. Imagine a robot that goes out into the ether and uses ultraviolet light or chemicals that can disinfect a space without any humans involved. COVID-19 actually increased the workload, but we’re happy to be supporting the effort there.
You’ve been in charge of DIU for two years, roughly the same time frame as your predecessor. There’s now a new administration coming in. What are your thoughts about handing this off to someone else?
I love this job. This is the most fun job I’ve ever had. The mission is critically important, and the people are phenomenal. We’re a small organization, but the talent we’ve assembled at DIU is so inspiring, it really is — the level of capability, dedication to the mission. It’s a very fun organization to be working with, so I’m excited about it.
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.