National Security is Now Dependent on Commercial Technology
They’re not the only startup in this fight. An entire wave of new startups and scaleups are providing satellite imagery and analysis, satellite communications, and unmanned aerial vehicles supporting the struggle.
Equipment from large military contractors and other countries is also part of the effort. However, the equipment listed above is available commercially off-the-shelf, at dramatically cheaper prices than what’s offered by the large existing defense contractors, and developed and delivered in a fraction of the time. The Ukraine conflict is demonstrating the changing character of war such that low-cost emerging commercial technology is extremely effective when deployed against a larger 20th-century industrialized force that Russia is fielding.
While we should celebrate the organizations that have created and fielded these systems, the battle for the Ukraine illustrates much larger issues in the Department of Defense.
For the first time ever our national security is inexorably intertwined with commercial technology (drones, AI, machine learning, autonomy, biotech, cyber, semiconductors, quantum, high-performance computing, commercial access to space, et al.) And as we’re seeing on the Ukrainian battlefield they are changing the balance of power.
The DoD’s traditional suppliers of defense tools, technologies, and weapons – the prime contractors and federal labs – are no longer the leaders in these next-generation technologies – drones, AI, machine learning, semiconductors, quantum, autonomy, biotech, cyber, quantum, high performance computing, et al. They know this and know that weapons that can be built at a fraction of the cost and upgraded via software will destroy their existing business models.
So what happened?
Congress cut their budget by 20%.
Why? The Defense Ecosystem is at a turning point. Defense innovation threatens entrenched interests. Given that the Pentagon budget is essentially fixed, creating new vendors and new national champions of the next generation of defense technologies becomes a zero-sum game.
The Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) had no advocates in its chain of command willing to go to bat for it, let alone scale it.
The Department of Defense has world-class people and organization for a world that no longer exists
The Pentagon’s relationship with startups and commercial companies, already an arms-length one, is hindered by a profound lack of understanding about how the commercial innovation ecosystem works and its failure of imagination about what venture and private equity funded innovation could offer. In the last few years new venture capital and private equity firms have raised money to invest in dual-use startups. New startups focused on national security have sprung up and they and their investors have been banging on the closed doors of the defense department.
Create a new defense ecosystem encompassing startups, and mid-sized companies at the bleeding edge, prime contractors as integrators of advanced technology, federally funded R&D centers refocused on areas not covered by commercial tech (nuclear and hypersonics). Make it permanent by creating an innovation doctrine/policy.
Scale new entrants to the defense industrial base in dual-use commercial tech – AI/ML, Quantum, Space, drones, autonomy, biotech, underwater vehicles, shipyards, etc. that are not the traditional vendors. Do this by picking winners. Don’t give out door prizes. Contracts should be >$100M so high-quality venture-funded companies will play. And issue debt/loans to startups.
This is a politically impossible problem for the Defense Department to solve alone. Changes at this scale will require Congressional and executive office action. Hard to imagine in the polarized political environment. But not impossible.
Put Different People in Charge and reorganize around this new ecosystem. The threats, speed of change, and technologies the United States faces in this century require radically different mindsets and approaches than those it faced in the 20th century. Today’s leaders in the DoD, executive branch and Congress haven’t fully grasped the size, scale, and opportunity of the commercial innovation ecosystem or how to build innovation processes to move with the speed and urgency to match the pace China has set.
Change is hard – on the people and organizations inside the DoD who’ve spent years operating with one mindset to be asked to pivot to a new one.
But America’s adversaries have exploited the boundaries and borders between its defense and commercial and economic interests. Current approaches to innovation across the government — both in the past and under the current administration — are piecemeal, incremental, increasingly less relevant, and insufficient.
These are not problems of technology. It takes imagination, vision and the willingness to confront the status quo. So far, all are currently lacking.
It may be that the changes needed are so broad that the DoD can’t make them and Congress needs to act. If so, it’s their time to step up.
Carpe diem. Seize the day.