Experimental Defense Unit Funds New Tech but Faces Skeptics
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — An Obama-era effort enlisting startup companies to come up with solutions to the military's toughest technological challenges is funding experimental drones, new cybersecurity technology and advanced communications systems for soldiers.
But as the Department of Defense's "Defense Innovation Unit Experimental," or DIUx office, approaches the two-year mark this month, it continues to face questions from Republican leaders in Congress and others who view it as a still-unproven, and possibly unnecessary, venture.
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Texas Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees defense spending, agrees the military needs to better keep abreast of the innovation happening in the commercial sector. But he's not yet convinced DIUx is the long-term solution and might overlap with other advanced technology offices.
The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency, or DARPA, for example, dates to the 1950s and the space race, while various armed forces branches also have their own research arms.
"This is a good and important initiative, but we don't want this to grow to be some gigantic bureaucracy," Thornberry said this month. "This question is: What is this office doing that's different from what others are doing?"
The proof that DIUx is working is the significant number of projects it has undertaken in a relatively short amount of time and with minimal taxpayer investment, said Col. Michael McGinley, who heads DIUx's office in Cambridge, near the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Since opening its first office in California's Silicon Valley, DIUx has awarded $100 million in government contracts to 45 pilot projects.
The investments are modest since much of the heavy lifting has come from private investors, who have collectively pumped roughly $2 billion into the companies DIUx is working with, according to McGinley.
Most of the contracts have also gone to startups and smaller firms that aren't among the big, traditional military suppliers, such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing or Raytheon. That's a major objective of the initiative, which McGinley described as "complementary" to other military research organizations but with a distinctly different mission.
And, under the military's traditional purchasing process, the contracts would have likely taken years longer to reach the point they're at now, by which time the technology would have become obsolete, he added. DIUx, by drastically simplifying the bidding process, is awarding contracts within four months.
"This is changing the game in the way (the Department of Defense) operates and acquires new technology to support the warfighter," McGinley said. "We're not vaporware. We're producing tangible results."
The office, with roughly 45 civilian and military staffers, focuses on five general areas: artificial intelligence, information technology, drones and other unmanned vehicles, and space and life sciences.
Of the 45 projects being piloted, three account for about a third of all spending.
Tanium, in Emeryville, California, has been awarded $12.7 million to help the military better manage its information technology and cybersecurity operations.
Composite Engineering in Roseville, California — in partnership with three other unnamed companies —has been given a total of $12.6 million to develop high speed drones.
And London-based online game developer Improbable was awarded $5.8 million for an undisclosed simulation program.
Among the DIUx technologies already in use is new software helping the Air Force make jet refueling more efficient, a $2.7 million contract that went to Pivotal Software, Inc. of San Francisco.
"We had previously tried working with the military without DIUx, and I can confidently say it's much easier to work with the military with DIUx than without," said Brandon Tseng, co-founder of Shield AI, a San Diego-based company developing a hand-held , "artificially intelligent" drone designed to be used in indoors and without a human pilot.
For now, DIUx appears to have President Donald Trump's support.
Trump's Secretary of Defense, Gen. James Mattis, is making his first official visit to DIUx on Thursday, when he stops by its outpost in Mountain View, the California city home to Google. (DIUx also has offices in Austin, Texas, and the Pentagon.)
But Congress has been so far reluctant to invest fully in the effort. After receiving $20 million to launch in 2016, DIUx was given $10 million for the current budget year, which ends Sept. 30, according to a DIUx spokeswoman.
The office seeks roughly $30 million next year, but a Senate defense spending plan that includes the full request will have to be reconciled with a House version that cuts it in half.
DIUx deserves more time, considering it's made "substantial progress" after initial confusion over its mission and pushback from traditional defense contractors prompted an overhaul less than a year in, said Andrew Hunter, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization.
But Thornberry, the House Armed Services chairman, said he'll be looking for DIUx to make more compelling arguments. It's not enough to show that it's spending taxpayer money quickly.
"The question is, how much does this advance our capability? What are you getting for it?" he said. "That's what we've got to get our arms around."