The experts all agree. The Pentagon and the U.S. military’s future depends on advanced weapons systems that will require cooperation with America’s most advanced technology companies, including the major players in Silicon Valley.
But what if Silicon Valley doesn’t want to help?
This is the situation our defense leaders are facing with one particular company—and not a small one: Google. Two weeks ago it opted out of the $10 billion competition for constructing the cloud architecture the Pentagon wants to protect its data and networks. This is coming on the heels of the protest by 3000 Google employees against Google helping the Pentagon develop Project Maven, a facial recognition program for targeting terrorists. At the same time, ironically, Google is building massive artificial intelligence research center in China, which will hire and train Chinese scientists whose research will directly help the Chinese military and intelligence agencies.
Google’s hesitation to lend a hand in getting our military up to speed with the advanced technologies of the future, expresses a view that’s common across the Valley and elsewhere in America’s high tech labs and board rooms—not to mention our universities. Far too many technology employees and even executives feel that working with America’s military will represent a betrayal of their liberal principles, and means becoming another cog in the wheels of the dreaded Military-Industrial Complex.
For its part, the Pentagon knows this cooperation is crucial to America’s future. Taking the lead in AI, robotics, autonomous unmanned systems, quantum computers, even 3-D printing, will be essential for maintaining and extending our technological edge over our near-peer competitors, meaning Russia but particularly China. The latest Trump administration report on the state of America’s defense industrial base offers a dismal glimpse at our declining ability to produce the current weapons and equipment our military need to remain alert and strong, noting that the erosion of domestic manufacturing “threatens to undermine the ability of U.S. manufacturing firms to meet security requirements”—let alone supply advanced technologies like composite materials, semiconductors, and high-grade electronics.
To solve this problem, the Pentagon has tried reaching out to Silicon Valley with a Defense Innovation Unit, headquartered in Mountain View. The Obama administration even called on Google executives to help it modernize the Defense Department; and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is constantly encouraging private tech companies to submit projects that will lead to breakthrough defense technologies.
This outreach has produced some success; but it’s hardly resulted in a new Arsenal of Democracy like the one America achieved when our military and what were the most advanced industries—auto makers, electronic and communication companies like General Electric, Westinghouse, and AT&T—joined forces to give America the strongest military in its history, and produced victory in World War Two.
The Google story helps to explain why what happened then, isn’t happening today. Right now the military and Silicon Valley exist in parallel cultural universes, and not just in terms of politics. The business models that drive America’s high-tech sector are very different from the needs of warfighters, who are few and far between in the offices and board rooms of Silicon Valley. Also, there’s a more practical, understandable worry that doing business with the Pentagon means getting hopelessly entangled in the bureaucratic red tape that slows the Defense Department’s procurement process virtually to a crawl, where developing a complex system can take decades—and where any new technology you develop with Pentagon money no longer belongs to you but to the government. This loss of intellectual property rights ensures that the work you do for the Pentagon, is almost guaranteed to lose you market share further down the road.
Finally, many high-tech companies worry that the men and women in uniform simply don’t understand the advanced technologies commercial companies keeping spawning and improving almost every day, and too often try to fit round high-tech pegs into conventional low-tech square holes.
It is now time for both sides to think beyond the Military-Industrial Complex stereotypes of the Vietnam era. The Pentagon and America aren’t the evil empire; and what incentivizes Raytheon or Lockheed Martin isn’t the same as what will motivate twenty and thirty-somethings to turn their latest discoveries for dominating the civilian market place into systems for dominating air, sea and cyberspace—or even, with the space-based ballistic missile defense system Congress wants to see underway, space itself.
Not every high-tech executive feels like some of Google’s employees. “This is a great country and it does need to be defended,” Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently told an audience in San Francisco. “If big tech companies are going to turn their back on U.S. Department of Defense, this country is going to be in trouble,” he added.
Bezos is right. But what’s needed are new ideas on how the Pentagon and Silicon Valley can both feel like winners, in order to build the high-tech Arsenal of Democracy we’ll need to defend America in the 21st century.