Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

A neat new way to attack military problems: ‘Hacking for Defense’

Defense innovation typically follows a familiar arc, beginning with overly optimistic promises inevitably ending in anti-climatic disappointment.



By Sebastian J. Bae
Best Defense Council of the Former Enlisted

Defense innovation typically follows a familiar arc, beginning with overly optimistic promises inevitably ending in anti-climatic disappointment. So, as I waited to observe a Hacking for Defense conference, I nursed a deep skepticism. But after eight hours, I left believing Hacking for Defense could transform the entire ossified defense enterprise.

Hacking for Defense is founded on a simple yet daring concept: gather the nation’s smartest university students from various fields to tackle the Pentagon’s most difficult problems.

To start, students form teams of three or four members, choose a sponsored problem, conduct interviews, and craft an initial plan to solve their chosen problem. By the first official class, only a handful of selected teams have survived the gauntlet, paralleling the destructive creative process in Silicon Valley start-ups. Then, the real work begins. Utilizing the Lean Start-up Theory, teams must develop and deliver a product or service to their respective sponsors within 13 weeks.

To skeptics everywhere, myself included, this process may initially seem academic or quaint at best, but the results speak for themselves. Team Exodus produced a mobile phone application that enables Syrian refugees to access the most up-to-date information like the nearest medical center. Team Fishreel sought to combat catfishing, the practice of luring individuals through an artificial online persona, by leveraging social media data to highlight anomalous personas to government and commercial entities. If catfishing doesn’t seem like a national security threat to you, just ask the Israeli Ministry of Defense, which recently suffered from an ingenious Hamas intelligence operation involving cat fishing Israel Defense Forces soldiers. (Click here for more presentations by Hacking for Defense teams.)

Unlike typical defense innovation projects obsessed with prototypes and demos, the methodology of Hacking for Defense is problem-driven, focused on cultivating a deeper understanding of problem sets and deploying solutions. Steve Blank, an icon in Silicon Valley entrepreneurialism and one of the co-founders of Hacking for Defense, explained, “Everybody in an organization can be an innovator as in ‘I have an idea to make something better,’ but very few people are entrepreneurs. An entrepreneur is [someone that says] ‘I am going to take that idea and make it happen’ – make it happen by standing up a new unit or [by] convincing my organization to fund something new.” Throughout the conversation, Blank continuously stressed the importance of “protecting mavericks” and encouraging “disruptive thinking” in winning the wars of tomorrow. In an op-ed for The Hill, Blank argued, “We are not being out-fought. We are being out-thought.”

However, Hacking for Defense’s campaign of innovation has its shares of challenges. Zach Levy, a Hacking for Defense sponsor for the Asymmetrical Warfare Group, described his experience with Team Guardian as frustrating, challenging, and rewarding. Levy commented, “[Team Guardian] did the best they could, given that we as sponsors failed them.” He explained that common obstacles like inadequate command support, competing priorities, and territorial institutions can derail Hacking for Defense teams. Yet, undeterred, Levy argued, “Culture needs to change. And we need to learn to accept some level of risk to reach any kind of positive end-state” – adding that he will be returning as a Hacking for Defense sponsor.

Hacking for Defense may seem heretical, whimsical, and fraught with challenges. I would agree with you, but argue that’s exactly what the Pentagon needs. One thing is glaringly obvious – the Hacking movement is evolving and expanding. Hacking for Defense and sister programs like Hacking 4 Diplomacy have already spawned devoted acolytes, spanning 23 universities, 22 government agencies, and nine corporations. Washington’s own Georgetown University has recently established its own Hacking for Defense class, which live-streams its classes. (Tune in Mondays, 6:30 p.m. to 9:00 p.m. EST).

At best, Hacking for Defense succeeds in transforming the rigid Pentagon where so many others have failed. At worst, a whole generation of intelligent, motivated students will be introduced to public service.

Sebastian Bae is co-holder of the Marine chair on Best Defense’s Council of the Former Enlisted.

Image credit: H4D 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1