USAF Looking to Silicon Valley to Get its Innovation Mojo Back

So the Air Force has finally decided to reach out to Silicon Valley in hopes of figuring out how a massive bureaucracy can attempt to keep up with the blistering pace of innovation in the cyber realm.

Senior Air Force scientists are “taking a visit out to Silicon Valley, meeting with the leadership in Silicon Valley of companies such as Facebook, Google and the like, to see how we can build bridges to them and get them to be interested in DoD problems and help us innovate ourselves into a solid structure going forward into the future,” said Jennifer Ricklin, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s chief technologist during an Aviation Week-sponsored conference recently. “We really are looking at what are the best practices to keep innovation and technology access in the Air Force alive and healthy.”

The scientists will also be meeting with officials from Apple, according to Ricklin.

Earlier in her speech she noted something that’s been obvious for  years now; the Pentagon has been left behind in the race to innovate new technology, a sharp reversal of how things were during the Cold War.

“It’s no surprise that a lot of the technology innovation in this country in the last two decades has not com from the defense industry, it’s come from the private sector, from the commercial sector, things like the smartphone, the pad, the tablet,” said Ricklin. “We’re looking to those types of areas to see how is it that we can incorporate that type of innovation into the Air Force and how we do business in the Air Force.”

So yeah, nearly five years after it announced that it was diving into the cyber world with the intent of dominating the networks, the service seems to have realized that it needs the help of the world’s capitol of cyber innovation.

Needless to say, this is a smart move. The Air Force has long admitted that has lost dominance in high tech innovation to the private sector, it’s now doing something about that. The service needs to know what technologies and trends that cyber’s best and brightest are working on at a time when everyone from organized hackers to governments around the world are able to innovate new cyber weapons — that can have strategic implications — in a matter of days and for tiny amounts of money.

Still, I’ve got to wonder how well the staid culture of the Air Force (and the rest of the government for that matter) will mesh with the youth-oriented techie/hipster/rebel culture of Silicon Valley. The world of government and the world of the valley couldn’t be further apart culturally.

Here’s what Ricklin said when I asked her about this after her speech:

“I’m very concerned, I’m taking four days of my time with my boss and the Air Force chief scientist to go on out and see what’s going on and to start to build bridges, this is just a first step,” said Ricklin. From a financial standpoint, “they’re not interested in us, they’re making plenty of money. They don’t need us, they don’t care about us, they don’t particularly care about the defense department, this is not where they’re at. But, at some level, they might want to be concerned about the defense of their country. That’s something that we all share. I think the responsibility is on our shoulders to try to adapt to their culture. The entire culture that we have in the Department of Defense is based on the [post World War II] military industrial complex . . . and things haven’t really changed that much since then, it was developed for an industrial society that no longer exists and we’re not even an information technology society anymore, we’ve gone on past that. So, in the Defense Department we need to realize that and figure out what can we do.”

She went on to say that the Pentagon must be able to see future technological trends coming down the road from the most innovative companies and how these trends will shape society and how they can be used by the DoD.

“How do we bring that innovation and deal with these technologies inside DoD and try to bring them on as partners in the process,” said Ricklin

We’ll see how this plays out. Again, it’s a step in the right direction in terms of keeping up with the latest developments in the cyber realm.

  • Stormy

    This is an outstanding step forward! I suggest to them to read about how Hap Arnold worked with aircraft industry and academia prior to WW2 to prepare the USAAF for that war. I bet there are some lessons that can be gleaned from his experiences.

  • dddd

    A big step forward would also be plowing funding into encouraging more college students to pursue computer science. Computers are central to the most important industries of the future: unmanned systems, renewables, nanotechnology, and biology. I am convinced that these sectors will be vital to dominance in the military and economic realms.

    • blight_

      There’s plenty of CS majors. The fun question is where they are all going.

      Besides, they don’t work for the military: they work for its subcontractors.

  • They should innovate just the same way NASA is.
    Admit politics and bureaucratic levels have made you an unworkable model and outsource most everything. Then cut all the fat….
    I am not saying the Air Force would not run projects or technology, just that they would not design, build or install them.
    Why have a a Major or General agonizing how to organize and outfit a squadron?
    Leave then to do what they do best, run things efficiently.
    Let Technology companies come up with the big plans and push boundaries. I am not saying the Air Force would not have control. But I am saying by outsourcing this type of structural development, the Major or General in question would not be worried about their careers by trying something new.
    Failure and lessons learned would be allowed without anyone’s career getting tanked.
    That alone would propel things forward at a rapid pace….

    • blight_

      The other problem might be an oversized military organization at the top. Are there too many generals? Does up or out motivate officers to have their hands in many pies, to micromanage and rotate between assignments at the expense of an efficient organization?

      Of course, the private sector can’t be totally liability free.

  • Dfens

    Maybe they could ask the Silicon Valley companies which bureaucracy funds the development of their new products. Ha ha ha, that would be a real knee slapper, wouldn’t it? Maybe they could ask the companies if they think their product development cycles would be longer if they could find some sucker (like, oh, the US taxpayer, for instance) that some dumbass bureaucrat could sign up to pay them $1.10 for every $1.00 they spend on designing their next new product and we’ll see if that causes their development cycles to get longer/cost more, or get shorter/cost less. I mean, hell, if someone would pay me $1.10 on every dollar I spent for anything, I think I might find a few ways to drag things out. Does that make me a crook, or am I just looking out for my family? I guess it all depends on your perspective.

  • SJE

    Some of the cultural and structural things that inhibit the military from working with the hitech sector should be reformed merely for the sake of improving the function of the military. For example, too much of advancement requires being subservient to those above and not making any waves, which leads to group think. Pay for talented officers and combat-hardened personel is very low. etc etc. Senior officers so much more money in the private sector that they are tempted to approve equipment they don’t need. etc.

  • Lance

    Please goto IBM or Dell Macs suck!

    • Lance

      Let me say there PC suck the Ipad is ok.

    • blight_

      IBM is actually getting its mojo back. They’re putting more creed back into innovation and thinking big.

      Dell just cranks out cheap laptops like the Soviets cranking out missiles “like sausages”. No innovation there.

      • UAVgeek

        You do realize that the PC division of IBM is now owned by the Chinese company Lenovo…. right? That innovative design is being done in Shenzen.

        • blight

          There’s still plenty of IBM here in the states. They do data services and high performance computing in Rochester, NY, Rochester, MN…

          I know about Lenovo. Though I suppose I should have caught the “IBM or Dell” reference properly, since I assumed he meant actual Big Blue.

        • blight_
  • citanon

    Ask Apple to build a machine with 1 million moving parts to fly at 50,000 feet at Mach 1.8 and see things 200 miles away with perfect clarity without anyone knowing you are even around…and Apple would not have a single clue how to even get started.

    The most innovative and technologically competent companies in America are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Northrup Grumman. When they respond to specific DoD requests in constrained ways that make it necessary to cross every bureaucratic i and dot every t, you get hundred million dollar uber-wonders that end up way over budget, behind schedule, and in far fewer numbers than desired. But, has the DoD ever just gone to them and say, hey, what you offer for us today, immediately, on time, on budget, that’s new and would add to our forces’ capabilities? If they are feeling behind the times, maybe it’s time they tried more of that. The Predator is an example of what could come out. A few more successes like that wouldn’t hurt.

    • Dave

      They’d probably do a btter job than LM thats for sure

      • blight_

        Really? Apple’s specialty is ease of use, intuitive use, ergonomics and the like.

        Besides, aircraft aren’t as profitable as an iPad.

    • Thomas L. Nielsen

      “…and Apple would not have a single clue how to even get started.”

      Not only that, but imagine if they actually got the thing in the air and operational. You push the little red button for the cannon, and get a pop-up in the HUD with “Are you sure [Yes]/[No]?”. Or is that just Microsoft?

      Regards & all,

      Thomas L. Nielsen

    • jrexilius

      Very good point. In the business world a common cited difference between Japanese auto companies and US ones is that the Japanese have a cooperative approach to dealing with their parts vendors where US companies have a competitive/conflict driven model.

      Whole MBA courses have been taught on this basic idea. The problem is General Motors’ board members and stock analysts are brilliant and efficient stewards compared to Congress. Without something close to a constitutional amendment pulling the fat dirty fingers of Congress out of procurement will inhibit any serious optimization of the existing defense industry.

  • TonyC

    Problem with DOD as a customer is overbearing regulation combined with low quantities. There is no incentive for commercial companies to do work for the DOD.
    The DOD has to take what is developed for the commercial world and adapt that technology to their needs. The US military industrial base gets alot of bad publicity, but they are successful in getting DOD what they need. Alot of the problem is the DOD doesn’t know how to ask for what they need and put bogus contracts.

  • Mark

    I’m for anything that will increase my work computer speed above that of a 34.4kbs dial up modem.

    • blight_

      If you’re hating on your work computer, it sounds like the company needs a new one. However, to save money…

  • itfunk

    Anyone in Silicon valley will tell you the same thing – the solution is to let the defense contractor dinosaurs die.

    Buts that is not the answer the USAF is looking for – what they want to hear is that the secret is outsourcing. The next big wave in the defense industries will be move much more of development and production offshore.

    • tiger

      Over time the Dinosaurs have died or been eaten. There are no more Brewsters, Curtiss, Supermarines, Fairey, Douglas, Republic, Kaiser ship, Packard engines.

    • blight_

      There’s not a lot of startups in the aviation business. Especially ones that the government will do business with.

      • UAVgeek

        Sure there are, they just have trouble going against the NorthGrums, LMCO, Raytheon etc. Eclipse Aviation? Adam Aircraft?

        • blight_

          Perhaps I should rephrase. Not many startups that are aiming at the niche high performance defense industry. Maybe SpaceX would be the closest, since the problems they’re addressing and the technical challenges of going into LEO are closest to designing high performance fighter aircraft.

          • UAVGeek

            Because LMCO and Boeing have basically bought up everyone else in the market, and are using their political influence to crowd any other potential players out. The only people they haven’t crowded out is General Atomics, and that’s because they were sneaky and conducted a systems analysis disruption attack on the US Defense procurement system,

          • blight_

            GA might eventually be folded in at some point.

            The military’s procurement system is built around generals getting chairman-of-the-board positions and cushy bennies. It’s not like they’re going to take bets on small startups.

  • Chris

    The entire problem is the multi-year approval process for every single thing that comes out. By the time DoD approves it, its outdated

  • UAVgeek

    This is a complete non-starter. The entrenched MICC culture has gotten so powerful the USAF leadership simply WILL NOT LISTEN to innovative thinking, especially when it comes from it’s own ranks. Even when technically and fiscally superior methods are in fact WAVED IN THEIR FACE they will ignore it because outside forces (that drive procurment frankly) are so powerful they drown out all other sources of information.

    This is a culture issue. In Social organizations, cultural issues can be reformed from the bottom through grass roots, in Companies they can be reformed through competitive pressure, but in the military a “grass roots” effort is called “Mutiny” and “Competitive Pressure” is called “War”. Maybe a severe curtailing of the budget is exactly what’s needed to get the Rutans, and the Wozniaks to have a say in what kind of tools the military gets?

    Think about this, we have not been able to adopt an obviously technically superior small arms cartridge (6.8mm SPC) because no large contractor is going to make a royalty off each cartridge sold. As a result we’re still saddled with 5.56 even though the data says we should be using something bigger. Small arms is the HEART of a military regardless of branch. If you can’t do that right, you can’t do anything else right either.

  • jrexilius

    Speaking as both a former Blue-suiter and a technology entrepreneur / software engineer I can say that I actually see hope in this path if they are serious about looking hard enough.

    I currently do part-time freelance work for DoD and other agencies where I can, but I bucket it in my charity or non-profit work as the money is a joke. I make my money in the commercial tech world. And for all the hyperbole of the “massive wealthy” defense industry I’ll say they are a joke compared to Google, FB, Apple, et al.

    But I would be willing to don the uniform again as a reservist or guard and more or less donate my time and expertise to the defense of our country if I had the latitude to get things done and really bring change in.

    The money isn’t the real sticking point. It’s impact. I was an intel guy in the USAF and I had significant impact on real-world events beyond my years. That impact and ability to move and make a difference is whats lacking in the USAF (and DoD) technology world. People get that at start-ups or large web companies.

    I have _a lot_ of tech friends who take a year or two off and work on a non-profit or an open source project because it’s satisfying to make a difference in the world. USAF can offer that if they are smart enough to pick up on that.

    • blight_

      Indeed, and they pay out the nose in R&D to build real-world things. Facebook’s expenses are wages and server farms, along with that intangible innovation capital that makes it an (at the moment) social media powerhouse.

  • Jim

    Regarding Apple Ipad order, everyone else posted the cancellation news, except this site.
    Apparently Ruskie designer was involved in parts of the code, and the DoD would not have that.

    • Dfens

      Plus, the software can’t possibly be safe unless it meets the requirements of DO-178B. Everyone knows that. How much safer is it if it meets those requirements, you ask? Well, no one knows. Just because those standards cost the US taxpayer billions every year certainly does not mean it is worth while for the US government to test the standards to see if they add any value at all. Obviously they add value if they cost lots of money, right? I mean, we’d never put standards like that in place just to keep commercial companies out of the military software business! No, that might imply there was some collusion amoung defese contractors which might fall under anti-trust laws. Nooo, that would never happen… or would it?

  • Nik

    Seriously, I work in AFRL and we can’t even access most outside web sites. The management is so concerned with rules rather than research and the number of rules is never ending. Plus, no program lasts for more than 2 years before someone changes their plan. How do you innovate without persistence? You cannot comprehend how inefficient it really is.

    • blight_

      Sounds atrocious and oppressive.

      Sounds like you guys at ARFL are stifled on persistence and passion. Kinda scary.

  • passingby

    USAF seeking help from the Silicon Valley??? LOL

    might as well go directly to India, China, Russia, Taiwan, Korea and Japan for help.

    Better still, outsource the entire US federal government … you will save a trillion a year AND yet get more truly constructive work done that benefits the general population instead of the blood-sucking Wall Street fraudsters, the military industrial complex vampires, and the less-than-worthless US politicians (e.g. Obama, GW Bush, D Cheney, D Rumsfeld, Condi Rice, B & H Clinton, Eric Holder, …)

    • Zoopy

      Right, because in the best possible world, the people writing the regulations, forcibly enforcing the laws/regulations, monitoring elections, judging civil and criminal cases, and deciding if we should to to war or not should all be working to an explicit profit motive…

      • passingby

        that sounds almost exactly like the US establishment (real owner of the US government)

  • Zoopy

    Yeah, that’s my point actually. For better or worse, government has/had a reputation for offering stable employment. Speaking for myself, that was attractive because I’m the only earner in my family, and we just don’t have the wealth to tolerate a long period of unemployment. I’m just saying that that argument is less compelling for attracting workers to federal service than it used to be.