Defense Secretary Ash Carter
Defense Secretary Ash Carter

In a recent Washington Post story, Lexington Institute defense consultant Loren Thompson talked about the daunting task the U.S. Department of Defense faces in its quest for a “Third Offset” strategy: a long-term technology advantage over potential adversaries.

The Pentagon is seeking “an enduring competitive edge that lasts a generation,” Thompson said “But generations in technology these days are measured in months.” The article, Robots, swarming drones and ‘Iron Men’: Welcome to the new arms race,” talks about how the DoD is hoping to learn from Silicon Valley how to move faster and develop the new technology needed to stay ahead in space.

Thompson’s assessment matches that of Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, who said recently, “The race now depends on who can out-innovate faster than anyone else.”

The DoD’s attempt to “out-innovate faster” can indeed borrow from industry, which has taken the lead in technology development from budget- and regulation-strapped defense. But commercial innovation isn’t just located in Silicon Valley – it can also be found throughout the country. Historically, the Pentagon has presented specific technical problems that commercial contractors then strived to solve.

This approach has been used with satellites as well to develop such constellations as MUOS and WGS, where the Pentagon defined the capabilities the spacecraft needed and let private industry create the end product. In today’s budget climate, such government constellations are no longer affordable, and the DoD is now looking to the commercial space industry to deliver the highly advanced communications capabilities needed by troops in the field and ships at sea.

An example of the faster development time is the three-year timeline from development to launch of the first of Intelsat’s high-throughput Intelsat EpicNG satellites. Government programs can take more than a decade to get a platform into space.

To help learn how to innovate faster, DoD turned to Silicon Valley just under a year ago, setting up the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) as a conduit to an area where the iPhone was invented in 18 months. Within nine months, the DIUx was overhauled and managers were replaced. Clearly, there is a cultural issue the DoD needs to tackle to start moving faster, not just a technical one.

This brings to mind a statement made famous by the late management guru Peter Drucker: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Many technology officials there are already frustrated with the slow pace of Pentagon acquisition, and also are wary of a congressional subcommittee’s call for oversight of how DIUx spends money, according to a May 11 Washington Post story. Skeptics are “watching to see how serious this is,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “Is this a fad? Is this going to last beyond this administration? And part of the problem is the acquisition system impedes this sort of development.”

Intelsat General technicians have vast experience gained over the past half-century of operating one of the world’s largest satellite fleets. We’ve developed a number of proprietary automation tools that allow just a few operators at a single location to simultaneously control more than 75 spacecraft orbiting the earth, in a range of orbit planes. This expertise benefits commercial customers today, but could also benefit the U.S. government, which is currently considering ways to shift the operation of military satellites over to commercial operators.

None of this innovation comes out of Silicon Valley. The larger questions are: Will DoD be able to fashion a cultural change that can span administrations? Will it be able to meet the speed demands of a Third Offset, and stay ahead of potential adversaries in space?

The importance of the correct answers was stated by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk in a meeting with Carter: “Having an incentive structure that rewards innovation is extremely important. It’s economics 101. Whatever you reward will happen.”

Let’s hope the DoD planners can learn from industry how to build a culture that incentivizes innovation. If they can’t, no advice from the West Coast can have a positive effect.