WASHINGTON — The Pentagon's new Defense Innovation Board had its first meeting Thursday, but it was clear the 15-member panel had been busy over the previous months.
The board came out with a series of rough recommendations for Secretary of Defense Ash Carter — or his successor — that they believe will lead to injecting a culture of innovation into the Pentagon.
Headed by Alphabet Chairman Eric Schmidt, the board is the brainchild of Carter, who has made innovation a key part of his last two years at the DoD. Announced in March, the board is made up of thinkers and business leaders from the tech world outside of the traditional defense sector.
Schmidt opened the meeting by acknowledging the importance of the Pentagon's mission: "We all believe an outside perspective would be beneficial and we've set out to try and make some recommendations."
He added that members of the board have spent the summer traveling around to various DoD installations, including trips to Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, Fort Bragg in North Carolina and Special Operations Command (SOCOM) headquarters in Tampa, Florida. Schmidt also spent two days last week traveling with Carter to learn about the nuclear enterprise, and future trips are scheduled for US Pacific Command and US Central Command.
So what are the early ideas from the board?
A Chief Innovation Officer
The first idea listed by the board was the concept of a chief innovation officer, appointed directly by the secretary of defense, to serve as a point person for innovation efforts around the department.
Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School who has served in various government positions, explained that the sharing of best practices around the DoD is currently "less than ideal," and noted that the position could act as the umbrella from which funding for low-level projects could flow.
Sunstein also said he believes that office could be set up "in a hurry. This could be done in a relatively informal way in the very near future." At the same time, he acknowledged that there are "significant" legal and logistical challenges about creating the office.
The position could particularly help create cover for individuals who are down in the ranks and have ideas but are unable to flow them forward on their own.
"There are innovators who are in the Defense Department and who are excellent, but who could be sharing best practices and better coordinated and could be spurred a bit more, and the idea there is a dispersed innovative capacity in the form of lower-level people who have great ideas but face obstacles," Sunstein told journalists after the event. "The idea of that as an umbrella for various concepts, we’re drawn to that."
Create a Digital ROTC
The recent hacks of the Office of Personnel Management and state election offices show how critical it is for the US to recruit and retain top cyber talent, said Marne Levine, chief operation officer at Instagram. Top commercial firms with deep pockets and great benefits compete fiercely for that talent, with DoD struggling to keep up.
So in order to attract talent to the Pentagon, the board suggested creating a "digital ROTC," where the Pentagon would pay college tuition for cyber experts in exchange for their service.
Levine acknowledged setting aside the funding for such a program "may require hard budget choices," but "one only has to think of the high cost of cyberattacks to understand the value of such an investment."
Similarly, she put forth the idea of creating a science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, career-path specialization inside the department, similar to that followed by doctors or lawyers.
The good news, said astrophysicist and television personality Neil deGrasse Tyson, is that the generation currently in high school and college is more interested in science than any before it.
"If you’re going to recruit people who have an interest in science and technology, I can assert that the pool of people now available to you is greater than ever before," he said. But to attract those people from the commercial sector, the Pentagon needs to offer the best opportunities for new technologies and programs around.
"You can’t just say come because we’re cool. You have to be cool," Tyson said. "And you’ll get 'em, for sure."
Create a Center of Excellence for Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning
The use of artificial intelligence and machine learning have the "ability to spur innovation and represent transformational change," said J. Michael McQuade, senior vice president for science and technology with United Technologies.
That is certainly an opinion shared by Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, who has talked extensively about the importance of artificial intelligence for the next generation of Pentagon systems. But McQuade said the Pentagon needs to think broadly about that potential and how it can impact things down to supply-chain optimization and training, and not just combat functions.
"We do believe substantial changes are happening in the core science and technology capability" here, McQuade said, which means the Pentagon should look at creating a center of excellence to be the central hub of this work. Whether that is a national lab or institute isn’t clear yet, but the center would ensure "adequate" focus on the issue.
Embed Software Development Teams Within Key Commands
Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn and now with Greylock Partners, joked that the tech industry has become so reliant on software that Silicon Valley should be renamed Software Valley. And the Pentagon, he said, simply has not kept up.
As a result, he put forth the idea of creating embedded software development teams in various key commands, which would be "small, agile teams of software developers where you would keep these teams current on modern techniques of software development."
Improve Software Testing Regimens
Milo Medin, vice president of Access Services with Google Capital and a former NASA official, also emphasized the importance of software for the Pentagon, noting it is the driving factor behind upgrade programs for everything from radars to the F-35 joint strike fighter.
Currently, operational testing of software is set in the classic mindset, Medin said, adding that the testers seem to have "an implicit assumption" that the Pentagon’s firewalls, as currently constructed, are sufficient.
"In the heavily networked battle space these systems are operating in, the consequences of our weapon systems being breached from a security perspective could be severe," he warned, adding that as autonomy enters the battle space the risk of systems being hacked could expand.
As a result, software testing needs to happen on an ongoing basis, not just when the planes are going operational. And for that to happen, the government needs access to the software code that runs the systems.
Speaking to reporters after the event, Medin stressed that does not mean defense contractors should be forced to hand over control of code developed in house, a major issue that has been raised from industry in recent years.
"The issue isn’t owning the software. The issue is access to the software," he said. "If software is your differentiator, if software becomes a core competency … that’s something the government needs to be able to have access to, to be able to build and to be able to potentially modify. That’s what you find in the tech sector."
The first public meeting of the Defense Innovation Board took place Oct. 5, 2016.
Photo Credit: Brigitte N. Brantley/US Air Force
Create Funding Streams for COCOMs
The Defense Innovation Board is made up of thinkers from academia and the private tech sector, in a purposeful attempt to inject outside thinking into the department. The sole exception to that is the presence of retired Adm. William McRaven, the former head of SOCOM.
Now the Chancellor at the University of Texas, McRaven provides an insider’s perspective on the acquisition system and internal processes that drive the Pentagon. He also understands how to operate around them to innovate quickly, due to his experience at SOCOM, which is famously able to develop and deploy technology at rapid rates.
But while SOCOM has that ability, other parts of the military do not — something McRaven said the board came to understand during various visits this summer.
"We were a little frustrated as you see these magnificent infantrymen and pilots who are equally as smart [as SOCOM], equally want to innovate, and yet the layers of bureaucracy to get the decision-makers to make those decisions are difficult."
As a result, McRaven would like to see a way to give other combatant commanders acquisition ability. Not for big, Category 1 programs — "You need to let that go through a traditional approach," he said — but for smaller technology programs. And if the commanders can quickly turn small projects into fielded capabilities, the idea that innovative thinking will be rewarded will "spread like wildfire" through the force, he added.
Those concepts are still in their infancy, but represent the more concrete ideas the board has come up with. But there are several broader concepts that the members are still trying to get their head around.
Jennifer Pahika, the founder of the nonprofit Code for America, said she wants to tap into what tech companies call the "maker movement," with an eye on the tinkerers in the military who have good ideas but not the venue for turning them into products. Eric Lander, president and director of the Broad Institute, said he was really interested in what role biological technologies could provide.
But the toughest issue to tackle, and perhaps the most important, is cultural. All involved agreed that developing a culture where new ideas can be tested and fail, without fear of ending a career, is going to be the biggest challenge. And it’s not clear exactly how that can be changed.
Schmidt said he is "convinced" the biggest change the board needs to look at is with people and culture, more than specific pieces of technology.
That was driven home by the public comment section of the meeting, which featured a number of junior and mid-level officers talking about the risk-adverse nature of the Pentagon. At the end of the day, however, the hope is that the ideas from the board can start to change that around the edges before injecting change more directly into the system.
"The fact [board members are] not steeped in the Department of Defense may be the best thing this group brings," McRaven told reporters. "At the end of the day, we want to have an outside look because I think that’s where we can make real change."
Added Schmidt: "We’re not going to write a report without impact. We view ourselves as more of a contact sport, working with whatever way is appropriate."
Another question is about the future of the group once Carter leaves office, which is expected to occur early next year as a new administration comes to power. The board is currently scheduled to expire in April 2018, but could be renewed much the same way other advisory boards have been in the past.
"The other boards have been around for a while, and I’m assuming we will generate enough value that people want us around," Schmidt said. "And if we don’t perform, we will be fired."
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.