On April 23, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter gave a speech at Stanford University where he claimed a greater link between Silicon Valley and the Department of Defense (DOD) would help “defend our country and help make a better world.” His speech—and subsequent events—showed that Secretary Carter is serious about incubating many of the ideas emanating out West within the Pentagon’s structures and processes. To discuss whether or not this is feasible, and what government, industry, and the general public should expect from this new initiative, the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security conducted a Google Hangout with prominent experts. The Hangout’s discussants were:

  • Patrick O’Reilly, a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Scowcroft Center and a Senior Vice President of Alphabet Energy, a Silicon Valley start-up;
  • Michael Horowitz, Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of the award-winning book The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics;
  • Kate Brannen, a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Scowcroft Center who was a Senior Reporter at Foreign Policy;
  • Steve Grundman, the M.A. and George Lund Fellow for Emerging Defense Challenges in the Scowcroft Center; and
  • Barry Pavel, an Atlantic Council Vice President and Director of the Scowcroft Center, who moderated the discussion.

While many topics were discussed, the conversation’s main themes were as follows.

The defense acquisition process is too slow.
 All members on the call said this was an issue, and one that both people in government and out of government have recognized for many years. As an example, O’Reilly mentioned that the Pentagon’s “Rapid Innovation Fund” has a deadline for submissions in June 2015, but the award for the technology will not be given until June 2016. That is painfully slow to solve rapidly evolving problems and for a company who needs to make money. Sadly, as Brannen pointed out, this is the way the Pentagon is used to doing business.

The Pentagon should incentivize innovation and experimentation. Horowitz mentioned that there are no incentives for people who want to experiment. If they solve problems creatively, they should be rewarded with a promotion or other kind of incentive. Further, Horowitz said that “it is really hard to innovate when you are number one.” America’s outright military strength is an impediment to innovate in its military sector. Luckily, said Horowitz, the Pentagon’s senior leadership seems committed to fostering a culture of innovation and experimentation within the five walls. DOD must also incentivize Silicon Valley companies to work on the issues it wants, because “money doesn’t always open doors,” said Brannen, but the problems do.

The Pentagon needs a culture change. If the Pentagon is to truly innovate and experiment, then it must change its culture. Part of this includes ending the shaming of failure and harshly punishing it, said Brannen. Further, the Pentagon’s preference for “the big buy,” as Horowitz called it, has stalled the innovation and experimentation process and made a culture change at DOD even harder to bring about. Taking some of the “ethos” from Silicon Valley and applying it to the bureaucratic and acquisition processes of the Pentagon will help kickstart a new operating culture.

Carter’s outreach is about his leadership. While there was a cybersecurity aspect to Carter’s speech, as well, this speech was really about “an exercise in leadership” by Carter, said Grundman. He was trying to connect to three different audiences: Pentagon employees, Silicon Valley, and the defense industry. The goal of his speech and his new westward directive is to develop a style and culture more closely aligned with Silicon Valley than current Washington practices.

Watch the video to hear more comments and perspectives from this dynamic discussion.

Related Experts: Kate Brannen, Patrick O’Reilly, and Steven Grundman