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Why the Pentagon and Silicon Valley Need to Get on the Same Page

An interview with the new head of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

The Pentagon's innovation arm, the Defense Innovation Unit, is helping to modernize the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other countries. (Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang/U.S. Air Force)
The Pentagon's innovation arm, the Defense Innovation Unit, is helping to modernize the Combined Air Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other countries. (Tech. Sgt. Joshua Strang/U.S. Air Force)

Senior U.S. government officials looking for high-paying jobs after their time in public service have been finding their way to Silicon Valley in recent years.

Michael A. Brown went the other way.

After spending more than two decades running high-tech companies, including the cybersecurity company Symantec, Brown took a government job two months ago as the head of the Defense Innovation Unit, the arm of the Pentagon charged with dragging the U.S. military into the digital age.

The challenges are immense. Though widely viewed as cutting edge, the military is actually way behind in innovation compared to civilian companies that deal in security. Partnerships between the Pentagon and tech firms have suffered from a glaring culture gap and from a reluctance by some people in Silicon Valley to get involved in military projects.

But with China quickly closing the technology gap, Brown says, the Department of Defense must get past these obstacles and learn to leverage commercial technology for military purposes. He sat down with Foreign Policy recently for an interview.

Foreign Policy: Why is it so important today for the United States to get ahead of its competitors on innovation?

Michael Brown: Right after the Cold War, the United States really was the only game in town from a technology standpoint and our economic capability relative to any potential adversaries was unquestioned. Now, things have changed. China has had a very rapid rise and of course Russia hasn’t been asleep, either. That presents some real challenges. We also have been living through a period where the investment in commercial research and development is happening at a more rapid rate. If we are not accessing that as the military, we are going to be behind.

FP: One prominent tech leader has said the Defense Department needs to overhaul its investment strategy if it hopes to keep pace with China—focus more dollars on fewer projects. What is your response?

MB: It is not our role to rationalize all of the different innovation areas and all the investment. What we want to be able to do is solve some specific problems and make sure that we do have enough of a budget to make a difference on those projects. I don’t think it’s a “spray and pray” model. We have a very rigorous process to evaluate what is out there.

FP: The Defense Innovation Unit has 97 projects right now worth about $300 million. How many contracts have actually made it out into the field?

MB: Not that many have made it into production yet, and part of that is it takes us sometimes 12 months or 18 months to do prototype contracts. DIU is only 3 years old. But to do that better, we are now expanding our contracting capability.

FP: What areas do you intend to focus resources?

MB: There are five technology portfolios because those are the areas where commercial development of technology is happening much faster than the military. These are artificial intelligence, cyber, human systems, autonomy, and commercial space. One great example in the human systems area: There is a commercial company out in San Francisco that has developed a frozen saline mist. That’s important because if I am injured, I can breathe that and I can cool my body temp down. The golden hour—the first hour after a traumatic injury, considered the most critical for successful emergency treatment—can be extended pretty significantly. It’s pretty transformational because it can save lives.

FP: Are you concerned about anti-government sentiment in Silicon Valley after Google’s decision not to renew their contract for Project Maven, the Defense Department’s flagship artificial intelligence program?

MB: I think that’s a fair characterization of how some feel but I don’t think its universal, and I wouldn’t even say its widespread. Still, we need to play a bigger role of articulating what the alternative is … great-power competition, what are the stakes. The military needs commercial technology more than ever.

FP: What is your long-term goal for the future of the Defense Innovation Unit?

MB: With DIU we really want to continue on the mission we’ve been on, which is really how do we accelerate commercial technology into the military? Long-term, it’s really all about: How do we improve the national security innovation base? The idea is that we would be investing in that space. We also think that we have a role to play in the conversations that occur at the intersection of national security and technology. For example, Jeff Bezos has been vocal in saying how critical it is that the military has access to leading commercial technology.

FP: What are your biggest challenges?

MB: The key for us, like any technology organization, is talent, so how do we bring together the right subject-matter expertise and folks that have military background. Talent is always an issue because people have other opportunities they can pursue. Frankly, we probably need more capacity ourselves; that will allow us to continue to be nimble. We need the capacity to be able to set our own priorities and move faster.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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