Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, an admirable mix of theoretical physicist and medieval historian, is trying to reconstruct the collaboration between the academic world, industry and government that existed in World War II and the Cold War but appears to have died out in recent years.
In a speech Thursday at Stanford University, Carter recalled the 1940s “when the Manhattan Project, the MIT Radiation Laboratory and others brought together the brightest minds, and the best of industry cranked out ships, planes and tanks,” and he remembered the Cold War “when a cross-section of military, academic and private-sector experts paved the way to a future of precision-guided munitions, battle networks and stealth.”
The Pentagon requested $69.8 billion for research and development next year, with $12.3 billion sought to “support the breakthrough science and technology research done at universities and companies and [Defense Department] labs across the tech community,” Carter said.
The globalization of military technology, the growth of cyber and electronic warfare, and the rise of non-state actors make renewing collaboration essential, he said. “Consider the historic role that the Defense Department and government investments have played in helping spur ground-up technology innovation, both in [Silicon] Valley and on this campus,” he said.
Carter described a series of private-sector achievements that were rooted in defense research projects — starting with the Internet itself but also including technologies that Apple integrated into the iPhone and that were “traced back to government or DOD research and expenditures.”
He said that Google’s self-driving cars grew out of a grant from the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as DARPA.
In June, Carter said, DARPA will stage the final round of its 2015 Robotics Challenge in Pomona, Calif., where 25 of the top robotics organizations in the world will demonstrate how their robots can be used in rescue operations — navigating disaster areas and completing tasks including opening doors, turning valves and using tools to cut holes in a wall.
The purpose, Carter said, is to “showcase how work on smaller sensors, pattern recognition technology, big data analysis and autonomous systems with human decision support” — all issues relevant to the Defense Department — “could combine into a rescue robot.”
On “60 Minutes” this past Sunday, David Martin, CBS’s longtime Pentagon correspondent, described the Chinese threat to the U.S. GPS satellites that guide most modern U.S. military weaponry and commercial navigation devices.
At Stanford, Carter pointed to California-based AOSense as “a company we work with” that is designing alternatives to GPS satellites using new optic sensors that could, for military systems, “keep track of their position, orientation and time from the moment they are created with no need for updates from satellites.”
AOSense is a small, employee-owned research firm that got its first prime contract from DARPA in 2006 and has subsequently worked on projects for the military services and other government agencies, including the intelligence community.
To expand cooperation with technology firms on the West Coast, Carter announced the opening of the Defense Innovative Unit Experimental to be staffed with tech-talented active-duty service members and military reservists who would “help scout for new technologies . . . [and] help start-ups find new work to do” with the Defense Department.
Carter also showed he was willing to join in approaches pioneered by other government agencies to overcome what he described as a “Pentagon bureaucracy [that] was too slow to fund something,” also saying “we weren’t amenable to working with start-ups as we should be.”
The defense secretary said that the Pentagon would also invest in In-Q-Tel, a nonprofit established by the intelligence community in 1999 that identified and invested in start-ups. The idea, he said, would be “to leverage their existing proven relationships and apply their approach to DOD.”
Carter admitted there were some technology developments unique to defense that had to be developed inside the community. He mentioned stealth technology as an example, saying “we need aircraft to look as tiny as sparrows on radar, but nobody else needs aircraft in the commercial world that do that.”
Carter also spoke of changes that he wants to make in recruiting and that have been the focus of talks he has had since taking office 10 weeks ago.
“I’m in the position now of needing to attract to military service a generation of people who grew up entirely in the Internet age, whose memories of 9/11 are either faded or dim or nonexistent, and attract them to the mission of national security,” he told the Stanford audience.
“I’m trying out ways to change the way we bring people in,” he said. “Give them a try. People don’t like to be tied down. . . . They want to move in and out.”
That, in fact, is how he came to government service.
In the 1980s, Sidney Drell, a legendary Stanford theoretical physics professor and an adviser to Carter on his university thesis, got him to join a team analyzing protection for a new U.S. intercontinental missile. “This for me was the beginning of my involvement in national security affairs,” said Carter, who has been in and out of government ever since.
That experience is shaping what he is trying to do in “recruiting new kids into the military, and with our civilians and the people who work in the defense industry,” he said. “What’s going to make it exciting? The mission is compelling: creating a better world and a safer world. The mission is compelling. But we’ve got to make the environment less dreary.”
Carter has his work cut out for him.
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