Mattis Turns to Tech Advisers for Help to Modernize Military

Mattis Turns to Tech Advisers for Help to Modernize Military
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Defense Secretary Jim Mattis plans to embark on a listening tour later this summer to gain a better grasp of the technological challenges facing U.S. military forces.

“He is interested in learning more about innovation and technology,” said Joshua Marcuse, executive director of the Defense Innovation Board, a Pentagon advisory panel of government and private-sector officials.

Marcuse said Mattis wants to visit military installations and hear first hand about what’s working and not working in the technology arena.

Mattis, since day one as defense secretary, has communicated his concerns that U.S. forces might be losing their technological edge, and he is looking at what specifically could be done to turn things around. The Defense Innovation Board is “helping him think through this,” Marcuse told RealClearDefense.

“He is starting to think more and more about innovation in the department,” Marcuse said. “I think this means that he will probably lean on the board more in the future.”

The 15-member defense innovation board, created in 2016 by former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, is chaired by Eric Schmidt, the executive chairman of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google.

Marcuse said the members are enthusiastic about working with Mattis and pleased that he supports the mission of the board. “We are optimistic that this year we’ll see important announcements,” he said. “It’s reassuring to us that they are not taking their eyes off the ball.”

The board already has put forth a laundry list of recommendations on business and personnel reforms that challenge current norms and promote innovation, “but it’s up to the secretary to decide what changes are made,” said Marcuse.


Mattis will be asked to support more efforts and investment in hot technologies such as artificial intelligence and autonomous systems that could dramatically improve military capabilities, he said. “These areas are central to what’s going on.”

More broadly, the defense innovation board has sought to shed light on the persistent problem of military systems running outdated software and not having an agile process to refresh the technology.

“Software and software acquisition reform are huge topics,” said Marcuse. “Why is the Department of Defense so challenged when it comes to this area?” This is an issue that will require high-level attention, he said, as it touches on every aspect of the defense business.

“Billions of dollars are spent on software contracts that are struggling, that have struggled for years, that have had Nunn-McCurdy breaches, cancellations and delays,” said Marcuse. Nunn-McCurdy is a law that requires the Pentagon to terminate a program when it balloons excessively over budget.

“It’s all connected to the same cause,” he said. There is a “fundamental” problem with the way software is bought and maintained. “The companies that support the department aren’t really on track today to deliver that kind of value.”

Defense Innovation Board Chairman Schmidt has been outspoken about a “shocking” lack of software and computer engineering talent in the Defense Department. He questioned the years-long timelines for software acquisition and development and called on the Pentagon to adopt commercial practices.

The Pentagon’s tech-outreach office, known as DIUx, is a key player in helping fix this, Marcuse said. “They’re talking to the companies that are pioneering new ways of doing software.” DIUx — short for Defense Innovation Unit Experimental — has offices in Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin, Texas.

The Air Force in recent years has been hit especially hard by failed software problems. The latest setback was the termination of a Northrop Grumman contract to develop a modern digital command center. The project was three years behind schedule and its costs had doubled.

Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski spoke last week about the need for “agile software development.” She said failures often happen because buyers and users work in isolation from each other. “Software-coders and war-fighting users should be together for maximum synergy,” she said at a Mitchell Institute forum on Capitol Hill.

Procurement red tape and elaborate testing requirements also bog things down. “Our risk aversion has layer after layer of people just checking product,” Pawlikowski said. “Commercial companies have software engineers who are constantly replacing older software on a continuous basis.”

The defense innovation board will advise Mattis to consider policy changes in how the Pentagon manages and uses data. Data is a weapon in and of itself, said Marcuse. “It is not ancillary to military effectiveness but central to it.” That reality is not reflected in the way data is stored and made inaccessible to those who need it. “We are helping DOD understand that.”

On issues related to technological innovation, Mattis also has turned to Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for insight. Selva has been a longtime critic of the Pentagon’s procurement culture and a proponent of inviting new industry players to shake up the status quo.

Selva has been a champion for DIUx since its inception. This week he called on Congress to approve an influx of funds into the cash-strapped organization. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing to consider his reappointment as vice chairman of the joint chiefs for a second term, Selva pleaded the case.

“We actually put tremendous demands on the defense experimental unit,” he said. A lack of funds is jeopardizing several programs, said Selva. DIUx serves a central role “finding the kinds of companies that can bring us the innovative ideas that can then be scaled into major programs.”

U.S. weapon systems have to stay on the cutting edge of technology, Selva said. “We can't be bashful about bringing new software into our architectures.” For that reason, he added, “We have worked very closely with some of the companies in Silicon Valley to do rapid prototyping, testing and deployment of software that helps with things like automatic target recognition and change detection.”

Technologies including artificial intelligence and autonomy can be “inserted into current concepts of operations, and might be used in new and imaginative concepts of operations to help defeat adversaries,” said Selva. “It is very compelling, when one looks at the capabilities that artificial intelligence and advanced robotics can bring, such as speed and accuracy of command and control.” The wars for which U.S. forces must prepare to fight, he said, “will be a complex battle space where speed is of the essence.”

Sandra Erwin is a national security and defense reporter for RealClearDefense. She can be reached at Follow Sandra on Twitter @Sandra_I_Erwin.

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