WASHINGTON, September 10, 2015 — The Defense Department is committed to maintaining the strong bonds between innovators and the department “because going forward, we need the best people, the best technology, and the best innovation to remain the world’s finest fighting force,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter said in St. Louis today.
Carter opened the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s “Wait, What?” Forum. The forum features thousands of technologists — both public and private — working on cutting edge projects.
The keynote speech is the latest example of the secretary’s outreach efforts. Earlier, he visited with workers at Boeing’s St. Louis factory and he has visited Silicon Valley in California twice since taking office less than a year ago.
Carter has said repeatedly that he wants better communication between DoD and leaders from private firms, academia, think tanks and other sectors from which innovation flows.
“While our ties have endured through successes and strains, the challenges and opportunities we face today demand we strengthen our partnership, and in ways that benefit us both,” the defense secretary said. “We live in a changing world, and our military’s excellence is not a birthright. It’s not a guarantee. We have to earn it again and again.”
And times have changed. In Carter’s youth — he is 61 — most technology originated in America, and much of it was the product of the government. “Today, much more of our technology is commercial, and the technology base is global,” he said. “And other countries have been trying to catch up to the breakthroughs — many of which DARPA helped develop — that for the last several decades made our military more advanced than any other.”
Technologies once the realm of only the most advanced states now is used by many other nations or even non-state actors, he said. “Nations like Russia and China are modernizing their militaries to try to close the technology gap and erode our superiority in every domain — air, land, sea, space and cyberspace,” Carter said.
U.S. dependence on space assets and cyberspace has created vulnerabilities, he said.
DoD needs to stay ahead of these challenges, the defense secretary said. “We’re pushing the envelope with research into both new technologies, and innovative ways to apply them,” Carter said. “And whether it’s robotics, data science, cyber defense, biotech, or hypersonic engines that can fly over five times the speed of sound, DARPA’s work is going to be critical.”
Easing the Path of Innovators
The department is looking to knock down the walls that separate the government from scientists and commercial technologists. Carter wants to make the separation “permeable, so more of America’s brightest minds can contribute to our mission of national defense, even if only for a time.”
He said DARPA is a model of this effort using “on-ramps and off-ramps to bring aboard some of the best people in the most promising fields.”
Building partnerships is another priority for Carter. The DARPA technology forum is one example, but so is the DoD Innovation Hub he launched in Silicon Valley. That is a partnership with more than 100 companies, universities and labs across the country to propel manufacturing of flexible hybrid electronics.
But partnership implies a two-way street. “At the same time that DoD is learning from industry, there are also ways we can be helpful in return, like incentivizing companies to think more about applying their expertise to some of the vexing problems we’re trying to solve day in and day out at the Defense Department through rapid seed funding,” he said. “That’s something DARPA has long excelled at, and we need to have more of that same agility across the Defense Department.”
Carter said he encourages vigorous debate and exchange because that is how breakthrough ideas form. “One area where that’s particularly true is cyber, where DoD’s mission is first and foremost to defend our networks, and where we all have a stake in making sure the Internet remains open, secure and prosperous,” he said. “And that means we must continue to respect and protect the freedoms of expression, association, and privacy that reflect who we are as a nation.”
These discussions and for a like the DARPA effort are important. “While budgetary constraints have led to restrictions on these kinds of activities in recent years, I believe this is counterproductive,” the secretary said.
“The Defense Department must be able to have our scientists and researchers come together with others, like those of you here today, to promote the free exchange of ideas that drives innovation forward,” Carter said.” So I’m directing that DoD change our policy to make it easier, not harder, for our people to benefit more from these conferences in the future.”