The Air Force wants to swap employees with Silicon Valley giants
After admitting that the U.S. military has long trailed the private sector in technological innovation, the Air Force Research Laboratory is hoping to set up a program to temporarily swap employees with Silicon Valley giants to tap some of the valley’s creativity. "There are a lot of advances and investigation in the private sector, and ...
After admitting that the U.S. military has long trailed the private sector in technological innovation, the Air Force Research Laboratory is hoping to set up a program to temporarily swap employees with Silicon Valley giants to tap some of the valley's creativity.
After admitting that the U.S. military has long trailed the private sector in technological innovation, the Air Force Research Laboratory is hoping to set up a program to temporarily swap employees with Silicon Valley giants to tap some of the valley’s creativity.
"There are a lot of advances and investigation in the private sector, and it’s just hard to keep up when you’re not in close communication with the folks that are involved," Jennifer Ricklin, chief technologist at the AFRL told Killer Apps during an Oct. 3 interview. "I’m thinking about tablets and smart phones and the big data issues and cloud computing — all of these things that are transforming how our society operates and communicates."
(The AFRL is the service’s far-out research arm that partners with private companies to develop everything from cutting-edge aircraft engines to new stealth tech.)
Ricklin went on to say that it doesn’t make sense for the slower-moving government — which she described as being set up to buy weapons on an industrial age model not an information age one — to spend mountains of cash trying to keep up with some of the world’s fastest-moving companies when it can simply collaborate with them.
For example, rather than develop its own unique products in mobile and cloud computing, the military should learn how to quickly tweak the latest commercial products to meet the military’s unique security requirements.
"We have higher security needs than the average teenager does when it comes to communications tools," said Ricklin. "So we are actually interested in learning as much as possible about the fundamentals that go along with all this information technology and new devices and doing research, perhaps collaboratively [with the high-tech companies], on how we can increase the security so that we could use those [new technologies] on the Air Force side."
"We have a lot of insight into security requirements, and we can share with them some of what we know about that, and in exchange we would be able to have the very latest and greatest but with all of that security already implemented so that it would be suitable for military use," added Ricklin. "We really are trying to position ourselves to get ahead of this bubble" instead of "trailing behind when it comes to these technologies."
So how is this done? Well, since last spring, AFRL officials have been visiting Silicon Valley institutions like Google, Apple, HP, Stanford University, and SRI International to conduct "exploratory talks" about how the military can stay on top of and tap into the R&D these firms are conducting.
The AFRL is looking at everything from personnel swaps to cooperative research projects with both Google and SRI, according to Ricklin.
In the near term, lab employees may soon be able to take advantage of a program allowing them to take a month-long sabbatical to work at a company while being paid by the Air Force. All of this will help foster communications between businesses and the military — something that disappeared in the decade after 9/11, argues Ricklin.
"Where there used to be an easy interchange between the private sector and the government, it’s just so much more complicated," said Ricklin. "Communication’s the lifeblood of technology transfer, and it’s been pretty well established that ideas move with people much better than they do with paper. You can write a hundred papers but it doesn’t often have the same impact as sitting down next to somebody and working with them for a period of time."
The big question is, how much culture shock will employees from the government and tech sides be in for during these swaps?
John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing Military.com’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.
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