Carter sizes up emerging technology in Silicon Valley visit

Defense Secretary Ash Carter is pushing to solidify the Defense Department's relationships in Silicon Valley in the final year of the Obama administration.

One of the many maxims on innovation one hears is that startups have to be willing to fail and fail quickly. The Pentagon is trying to embrace that ethos, but for Duchak, it comes with a caveat.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter. Photo credit: Sean Lyngaas, FCW

Defense Secretary Ash Carter meets the press in San Francisco. Photo credit: Sean Lyngaas, FCW.

SAN FRANCISCO -- Defense Secretary Ash Carter is in Silicon Valley this week to tout the Pentagon's outreach office and hear pitches from firms looking to get further traction for their technologies in an often cumbersome acquisition cycle. It is a push by Carter, a technocrat who has a Ph.D. in physics, to solidify relationships he has worked to build with Silicon Valley in the final year of the Obama administration.

Carter announced the creation of the Defense Department's Silicon Valley outpost, known as the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, last year. It comprises about 20 civilian and military personnel and has only been open for six months. But given the urgency with which defense officials have described the tech challenges facing the United States, measuring DIUX's progress can't happen soon enough.

Carter told reporters on March 1 that the goal of the office is "familiarizing a new generation...with the national security mission and giving them a taste of it, and creating a possibility that they'll spend some of their lives" contributing to the cause.

"I really mean the 'X' in experimental," Carter said. "We need to keep trying, iterate, see what works. But part of it is products that we can use. Part of it is connections to technology that we would not otherwise have."

He had just finished hearing presentations from tech firms at Galvanize, an incubator with offices in a back alley in downtown San Francisco.

The four firms listed as making presentations to Carter were Saildrone, which deploys wind-powered boats equipped with sensors; Quid, which uses algorithms for automated data analysis; endpoint security firm Bromium; and Qadium, which scans devices for vulnerabilities. A representative of "Hacking for Defense," a new class at Stanford University for applying startup principles to DOD problems, was also on hand.

All five organizations are already working with DIUX. Their presentations to Carter were a chance to drive home their relevance to protecting the country.

He sat attentively as Bromium executive Sherban Naum promoted his firm's defense against unknown malware. Carter was a tough audience. He wanted to know why, if Bromium was doing well, there weren't copycat firms trying to steal its business. Frank Kendall, his top acquisition official, and Eric Rosenbach, Carter's cyber-minded chief of staff, chimed in with probing questions.

In an interview earlier in the day with FCW, John Davis, who was acting deputy assistant secretary of Defense for cyber policy until May 2015, echoed Carter's emphasis on the personnel side of DIUX.

"With the drawdown of the military, there are a lot of veterans getting out," said Davis, now federal chief security officer at Palo Alto Networks. "We'd like to tap into that pipeline."

Santa Clara, Calif.-based Palo Alto Networks is exploring the idea of training programs for veterans to ease their transition into the tech sector, he added.

More advice sought

It has been a busy two days for Carter in the Bay Area. He sought to defuse tensions between the tech sector and law enforcement over a federal court order to compel Apple to help the FBI unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino, Calif., shooters.

In a March 1 speech to the Commonwealth Club of California, Carter said future data security policy "shouldn't be driven by any one particular case," referring to the Apple case. He also said encryption is a "necessary part of data security, and strong encryption is a good thing," adding that DOD is the largest user of encryption in the world.

On March 2, Carter announced the Defense Innovation Advisory Board, another effort to institutionalize the Pentagon's outreach to Silicon Valley. Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent company Alphabet Inc., will chair the board, which will help DOD identify tech solutions to organizational challenges the department might face in the future.

The board will advise the department on issues such as "rapid prototyping, iterative product development, complex data analysis in business decision-making, the use of mobile and cloud applications, and organizational information sharing," Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said in a statement.

Like DIUX, the board is part of a broader effort by Carter to shore up what defense officials have described as the United States' eroding technical advantage at the hands of China and Russia.

DOD also announced March 2 that it would invite "vetted" hackers to test the department's cybersecurity through a pilot program known as Hack the Pentagon. "The pilot marks the first in a series of programs designed to test and find vulnerabilities in the department's applications, websites and networks," Cook said.

Transforming 'Dilbertville'

DIUX sits on the edge of Moffett Federal Airfield, down the road from Google's headquarters in Mountain View. The place has an unassuming feel to it. A gymnasium and a cavernous auditorium host networking events in which DIUX tries to pair startups with DOD mission needs.

George Duchak, former director of the Air Force Research Laboratory's Information Directorate, is in charge of delivering on the lofty goals Carter has set for DIUX.

Duchak was at ease in casual dress during a recent visit to his office. When he inherited the office several months ago, he said, it "looked like Dilbertville," a suffocating jumble of cubicles.

Now, the open office he shares with his cadre of technology scouts features long whiteboards with notes and standing desks, a conscious effort to cultivate the air of a startup.

Duchak conceded that DIUX is not a fit for every firm in the valley. There are particular challenges to navigating the federal acquisition process, which Kendall, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, is trying to make less convoluted for smaller firms. In some ways, therefore, the fate of DIUX is tied to the fate of acquisition reform.

Nonetheless, Duchak and his colleagues aren't waiting for the legislative process in Washington to churn before trying to get new technologies into the hands of soldiers. Those soldiers deal with the here and now of real-world threats, while the entrepreneurs Duchak is targeting are thinking about futuristic scenarios years down the road. He said bridging those two paradigms is what he came here to do.

"The only time it makes sense to fail fast is if you learn from it," he said. Companies like Uber and Apple have shaken up their industries through their business models and not necessarily their technology, Duchak added. That is exactly what he wants DOD to do.

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