A reality check for defense ambitions: do they understand what it means to run with the bulls in Silicon Valley?
I had dinner with an old college friend recently. Jim is working on a cutting project run out of Silicon Valley, a high speed magnetic levitation transporter. It’s called The Hyperloop and is an idea put forth by Elon Musk, the celebrity CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, among other things.
The Hyperloop will be revolutionary, if Musk can pull it off. According to Wikipedia’s entry for the Hyperloop, “In June 2015, SpaceX announced that it would build a 1-mile-long test track to be located next to SpaceX's Hawthorne [California] facility.” Musk’s near-term action plan is bigger than just the one-mile-long prototype, though. “Construction on a 5-mile Hyperloop test track is to start on a Hyperloop Transportation Technologies-owned site in Quay Valley [located in central California] in 2016.”
In April of this year, shortly before Musk’s Hyperloop announcement, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced the establishment of the Defense Innovation Initiative.
"We want to partner with businesses on everything from autonomy to robotics to biomedical to engineering; from power, energy and propulsion to distributed systems, data science and the Internet of things… if we are going to leverage these technologies to defend our country and help make a better world, the DoD cannot do everything in all of these areas alone."
Great thoughts, but having a great idea is the easy part. Doing the work to make the idea a reality is the hard part, particularly in the Pentagon. The good news is that six months later the OSD office – the Defense Innovation Unit (Experimental) - is up and running, located in Silicon Valley, not in the black hole for innovation called Washington, D.C. That, all by itself, is a hopeful sign in the glacial bureaucracy of the DoD.
But there is reason for skepticism, too. The Pentagon is justifiably proud of their speed, compared with the way they usually work, but are they really ready to run with the best innovators in the commercial world? Do they even understand how fast that world spins?
It took six months for the Pentagon to establish a satellite office of three people in the Valley. Are they really ready to run with the A-Team in the Valley? Are they ready to run with the bulls - people like Elon Musk?
It’s hard enough in DoD to apply unconventional thought at the tactical level (see “When the wrong answer is the right one,” May 2014), much less across the Department at the strategic level, but Ash Carter is a talented guy.
We have our fingers crossed.