WASHINGTON — Billionaire Michael Bloomberg and other members of U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s reinstated innovation advisory board met for the first time to explore the Pentagon’s relationship with investment capital and find ways to speed the adoption of new technologies.
The Defense Innovation Board met Oct. 17 with a new slate of members chaired by Bloomberg, the former New York City Mayor and founder of Bloomberg LP. The group includes leaders from across the defense, business and education sectors convened to offer independent recommendations on Pentagon technology challenges.
The board was set up in 2016 to bring the technological innovation and best practices of Silicon Valley to the U.S. military. This week’s meeting was the group’s first since 2021, when Austin cleared the rosters of the Pentagon’s 40 advisory boards and conducted a review due to concerns about last-minute appointments by the Trump administration.
“Over the years, the board has been successful in bringing new ideas forward, including on talent and culture, digital transformation, software acquisition and artificial intelligence,” Bloomberg said during a brief public meeting that followed closed sessions with Austin and other senior leaders. “It’s also adopted principles and best practices from business to help the department run more smoothly. But there is much more that we can do, and I’m looking forward to that challenge.”
Executive Director Colleen Laughlin said Austin charged the panel with informing the Pentagon’s National Defense Science and Technology Strategy.
The study is focused on ensuring the department is adequately investing in critical and emerging technology areas, which Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Heidi Shyu identified in February. The 14 areas include hypersonics, space, artificial intelligence, directed energy and advanced computing.
Shyu told C4ISRNET in an interview on Oct. 10 that her team conducted a review of the military funding for these priorities and expects to issue a report early next year.
During the closed session, the board received a briefing from Shyu on the S&T strategy and the “innovation ecosystem.” They also heard from Mara Karlin, assistant secretary of defense for strategy, plans and capabilities, who discussed the National Defense Strategy, and were provided an update on the department’s digital modernization plan.
Ryan Swann, a Defense Innovation Board member and chief data and analytics officer at financial investment firm Vanguard, said Austin wants the panel to consider how the department might signal to the commercial market that it’s serious about investing in the technologies Shyu highlighted. He asked the board to offer recommendations on building a DoD workforce that can perform advanced analytics and cybersecurity.
Former Air Force acquisition executive Will Roper, who also sits on the board, said the strategy offers the department an opportunity to consider what “tomorrow’s war” will look like and what enabling technology may be required to win it.
He noted that just as the war in Ukraine highlights past discussion and planning for network-enabled weapons and integrated commercial services, the outcomes of future conflicts will rely heavily on the foresight of today’s leaders.
“This has been thought about, it’s been talked about, it’s been invested in and now it’s happening,” Roper said. “Looking at the S&T strategy for the department is simply bringing that same vision.”
Getting .com and .gov together
Austin challenged the panel to consider how the Pentagon might take advantage of private sector investment and innovation, particularly as more commercial companies are developing capabilities that could have national security applications.
Roper said he’s glad Austin is focused on leveraging privately funded innovation, calling it “a trend that this building has to get its head around.”
Finding ways to better take advantage of a broader, more diverse industrial base, he said, could help “counterbalance” some of the consolidation that’s occurred across the defense sector, allowing companies that are building capability for both the government and commercial markets to partner with DoD.
“Allowing companies that are a little bit of ‘.com’ and a little bit of ‘.gov’ to be able to work successfully in national security on their path toward global success can be a winning formula for the U.S. and one that really unlocks the potential of our market economy,” Roper said. “It’s a great first area for us to look at.”
Retired Adm. Michael Mullen, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011 and has since served on corporate boards for several companies, said he’s been surprised at how difficult it is for non-traditional defense firms to do business with DoD.
“It’s just been stunning to me,” he said. “I think we need to figure out a way to make it easier.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.