Innovation Key to Maintaining US Defense Leadership

The United States’ role as a global leader in defense is not “automatic,” it must be maintained and improved by building bridges between the technology and security sectors to encourage innovation in military operations, former US Defense Secretary Ash Carter said at the Atlantic Council on April 4.

While the US military “is the finest fighting force the world has ever known,” Carter said, “that excellence is not a birthright; it’s not automatic.” He called for the federal government to invest in innovation technology to meet an uncertain future. “I believe that we need to ensure that our innovative engine works… to bring innovation and public purpose together,” he said.

Carter delivered the keynote address at the launch of an Atlantic Council report, Keeping America’s Innovative Edge, authored by Peter Engelke, a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, and Robert A. Manning, a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center and its Foresight, Strategy, and Risks Initiative. The report is the culmination of a year-long effort, as part of a two-year partnership with Qualcomm.

“Efforts to widen the opportunities of technological change… [are] critical for America’s future,” according to Carter who will begin his new role as director of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Belfer professor of technology and global affairs in July 2017.

“Military services have begun to exploit the benefits of building bridges [between the Pentagon and US tech companies]… using technology to improve their own systems and processes,” he said, emphasizing the connection between innovation and public service. He added: “That spirit is there among our innovators, but the bridge connecting them to contribute is not.”

Carter described how recruiting innovators from the technology community to work with the military on the development of innovative operational plans was one of his priorities during his tenure as secretary of defense in the Obama administration.

While Carter sought to foster such connections throughout his time in office, “these bridges don’t maintain themselves,” he said, insisting they must be restored. “Seizing these opportunities is essential to our success as a nation and civilization in the twenty-first century,” he added.

Through the dovetailing of technology and defense throughout his time in office, he “ensured that [the Department of Defense] was a place where thinking boldly and innovatively was fostered.” Carter claimed such thinking will be crucial for his successor, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis, not only in order to meet the security challenges of today—terrorism, Russian aggression, instability in the Asia-Pacific, Iranian belligerence in the Middle East, and North Korea’s nuclear threat—“but also to meet the unforeseen challenges and opportunities that an unpredictable future might hold.”

While Carter was confident that “we will maintain our competitive edge… with unrivalled strength,” Fred Kempe, president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council, said that in today’s technological environment, “there is a real risk that the United States could lose this edge.” Kempe cited China as a lead contender poised to unseat the United States from its traditional role.

Kempe, who delivered the opening remarks at the report launch, pointed out the significant geopolitical implications of effective innovation and technological preeminence: “Imagine if the United States had not been first to the atomic bomb.”

Keeping America’s Innovative Edge was part of an effort “aimed at gaining an understanding of how the United States fits into the rapidly evolving global knowledge economy” and lays forth a roadmap for Washington to regain the country’s strategic edge, said Kempe.

Melinda Epler, founder and chief executive officer of Change Catalyst; Donna Harris, cofounder and strategic adviser at 1776; Philip Jordan, executive director of the Economic Advancement Research Institute; and Aaron Olver, managing director of University Research Park at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, later participated in a panel discussion to examine the report’s findings and application. Michaela Ross, a reporter with Bloomberg BNA, moderated the discussion.

The report found, and the panelists agreed, that the United States is doing well, but needs to do more in order to maintain its technological lead on the world stage.

According to Jordan, who also serves as the vice president of BW Research Partnership, while there is a positive moment in the innovation ecosystem “perhaps this had bred some complacency.”

“It’s terrific that we’re doing so well,” he said, “but the report calls out correctly that we can’t sit and expect all good things to come to us, it takes constant work.”

Where Carter emphasized building bridges between Silicon Valley and the Pentagon, Olver emphasized the importance of federal programs supporting both university and private sector research, also highlighted in the report. “We’ve slipped now to twelfth in federally sponsored research, which is affecting universities across the country,” he said, adding “we lose innovators” because of this.

Without ample funding, Olver claimed, “we run the risk of losing out on the talent race.”

Harris called for the federal government to create a climate of funding for and investment in innovation so that the United States “can be the place where the problems get solved.” The alternative, she said, is to cede technological preeminence to other countries.

Harris described how both China and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) pose serious threats to the United States’ position at the top of the innovation food chain. “Take a trip to China and see how much government money is fueled into research centers,” without constraint, she said. Though Harris said there are not as many dollars invested in innovation in China, “there’s a focus to it, and a race to it.”

Additionally, the UAE “has set an objective to be the smart cities capital of the world and drive innovation across the Middle East,” according to Harris. She said, “they’re framing their economy around it and throwing some serious dollars behind it.”

“This truly is a competitive race,” said Harris. She described how many nations prioritize entrepreneurship and innovation. “We have the lead; we need to keep the lead,” she added.

While the panelists agreed that increased investment in education is essential to maintain US leadership in technological innovation, “we also need to recognize that the process of innovating is how we change the culture,” said Harris. 

An intentional focus on risk-taking and entrepreneurial ventures at all levels of education and business could help facilitate innovation, she said.

The panelists agreed that technology companies and government investments must focus on fostering innovation among new demographics. Currently, said Olver, “innovators like to cluster together, and you see this at every level of scale.” Siloed communities of technological innovation, such as Silicon Valley, are the result.

While “innovation breeds innovative culture,” said Jordan, it then becomes difficult for innovation hubs to look outside of the small pool from which they typically source talent. This leads to a stark economic divide.

Consequently, Epler called for a “democratization of innovation,” which could consist of government funding of lower-class education in the tech sector. “We need to ensure that everyone benefits from this innovation economy, and lots of people are left out,” she said.

The United States needs more innovators to maintain its edge, yet currently struggles with a shortage of talent, said Jordan. “If we’re going to get serious about talent shortages… maybe there’s a source of talent that we could start looking at,” in underrepresented neighborhoods, he said.

“The tech industry as a whole is undervaluing diversity,” according to Epler, and this has real consequences for US success in innovation.

“To compete for the best, DoD must select the best, based solely on their qualifications,” said Carter, emphasizing the need for increased diversity in the field of innovation technology.

Rachel Ansley is an editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council. 

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Image: “To compete for the best, DoD must select the best, based solely on their qualifications,” said fomer Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at the Atlantic Council on April 6, 2017. (Atlantic Council/Bradley Howard)