The Blog

Despite Trump, Silicon Valley’s Pentagon Ties Stay Strong

Relevant links are at the bottom of this post.

On the surface, left-leaning Silicon Valley and the more conservative US military seem worlds apart. Tech companies favor individual initiative and a “move fast and break things” style. The Pentagon emphasizes a strict chain of command that filters ideas through layers of bureaucracy. But the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Advisory Board continues to bring the two together, even as Silicon Valley leaders face growing public pressure to back away from the Trump administration.

Former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter created the board in March 2016 so that the Pentagon could tap some of the best minds in science and technology. It counts among its members prominent Silicon Valley leaders such as Alphabet’s Eric Schmidt, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Instagram’s Marne Levine and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman.Despite uncertainty about its future under Trump’s administration, all the board members plan to remain until the end of their terms. They’ve also dodged the public controversy swirling around Silicon Valley leaders who maintain advisory ties to the Trump White House.

“There is a real contrast between the enthusiasm of tech leaders to serve on the Pentagon’s Innovation Board and the positive public atmosphere that surrounds it and the controversy that surrounds Trump’s CEO advisory group, which CEOs from companies such as Uber have bailed from,” says Peter Singer, a defense expert at the New America Foundation and coauthor of the 2014 book “Cybersecurity and Cyberwar: What Everyone Needs to Know.”

The fact that Silicon Valley’s current advisory role to the Pentagon has proven substantially less controversial than its White House parallel is not without irony. “It points to how the Defense Department is now viewed as the bastion of sanity and respect for law and science, versus the White House as a space of controversy,” Singer says.

Calling All Geeks

To date, the board’s “seemingly nonpartisan ideas” have been “well-received within the defense policy community,” Singer says. But he cautioned that ordinary bureaucratic resistance could slow adoption of its recommendations, unless Mattis and senior Pentagon leaders make them a priority.

Still, the Silicon Valley approach has some momentum within the military, particularly around open source initiatives. The program—founded by the Defense Information Systems Agency in 2009—has enabled collaborative work on open source and community source software across the Pentagon. Separately, the Military Open Source Software (Mil-OSS) community has connected developers in the military and civilian worlds since its creation in 2009. Such open source approaches could help the Pentagon move faster and innovate inexpensively, says Joshua Davis, senior research scientist at the Georgia Tech Research Institute and co-founder of the Mil-OSS community.

On Jan. 9, the Defense Innovation Advisory Board voted to approve 11 recommendations that covered issues such as boosting cybersecurity for advanced weapons, and funding new research in artificial intelligence. Outside experts such as Davis and Singer especially lauded the board’s recommendation to make computer science a “core competency,” by creating a specialized career track for military service members and recruiting fresh talent from both the military and civilian worlds. The Pentagon previously announced its commitment to this recommendation during an interim proposal period in Oct. 2016.

“That right there is a multi-decade kind of thing that’s not going to happen overnight,” Davis says. “But it’s probably one of the first things you can do to build a culture to accept innovation happening this way.”

Training a generation of troops on computer science would have outsized impact because many of the other board recommendations will not succeed without it, says David A. Wheeler, an expert on developing secure software, open source software, and software innovation. “The [Department of Defense] already has tracks for lawyers and doctors,” Wheeler says. “Sadly, software expertise is thin within government, even though modern systems are completely controlled by software.”

A Few Good Recs

Other recommendations clarify existing Pentagon practices. For example, the board suggested that the Pentagon “require all systems purpose-built for the military to have their source code available to the Department,” so that the government retains the rights to and can modify the code when needed. That helps ensure military software remains up-to-date and relatively secure. (Davis describes source code as the equivalent to the recipe that the computer “kitchen” relies upon to cook up the executable software.)

Standard contracting clauses for custom-developed military software already give the government such rights, Wheeler says. But he notes that officials sometimes waive those rights because they don’t realize the systems they’re purchasing have custom software, and fail to specify the software as a contract deliverable.

An interim recommendation calling for a new “global and secure” online system that would hold “all or most” of the Pentagon’s data has yet to be approved—and will likely prove very tricky to implement. Many companies in Silicon Valley and other industries already have their own internal systems to collect and share data in a way that boosts efficiency and productivity. But companies typically don’t worry about devastating national security consequences if they get hacked by foreign powers or malicious agents. “Security isn’t just part of the problem, it is the fundamental problem,” Wheeler says.

The best commercial security products can’t protect the Pentagon’s data from determined adversaries backed by foreign governments, Wheeler says. As a result, the Pentagon has intentionally kept its many systems and networks isolated, to limit the damage that can be caused by breaches of security. But the board has discussed using so-called “formal methods” that can mathematically prove a computer system is immune to entire classes of cyberattacks—a promising approach that still requires much more development.

It’s still unclear how Marine Gen. James Mattis, Trump’s Secretary of Defense, will handle the board’s recommendations. He has the final say on whether the Pentagon fully embraces the board’s ideas.

“At the staff level, we have had very productive conversations with the President’s transition team,” says Joshua Marcuse, Executive Director at Defense Innovation Board.

The US military’s mission will likely never be fully compatible with the Silicon Valley culture that Singer describes as “fast, flat in structure, and happy to fail and fail rapidly.” But it’s still refreshing to see a collaboration between government and tech that’s not fraught with controversy, and that may actually yield some positive results. After all, if the military’s going to meet the technological demands of 21st-century warfare, it’s going to need a few good geeks.

Correction: Peter Singer is a defense expert at the New America Foundation, not the Center for a New American Security as previously reported.