Ash Carter’s pointed message to Silicon Valley; Great-power contracts; Northrop closes Orbital deal; and a bit more.

Ash Carter never had a particularly high public profile as defense secretary, and he’s been even quieter since stepping down 17 months ago. So defense observers paid attention when he popped up this week at MITRE Corp., speaking in the wake of Google’s decision to bail on a Pentagon artificial intelligence program.

The issue is near to Carter’s heart, and a major focus of his work as SecDef: deepen ties between the Pentagon and the tech community, particularly in Silicon Valley. His legacy lives on in DoD outposts in Silicon Valley; Boston; and Austin, Texas, and in the Pentagon cells and advisory boards whose members are tech-community leaders.

In his Wednesday speech to employees at MITRE’s office in Bedford, Massachusetts, where the non-profit R&D shop works to support the government, Carter didn’t specifically mention the Google dustup. (Thousands of employees signed a petition against the company’s work with Project Maven, an AI-infused imagery-analysis effort we first told you about last year.) But he reiterated the principles behind his outreach effort.

“I thought it was extremely important for us to reach out and build bridges to that tech community,” he said. “That is difficult to do. It was particularly difficult in the cyber area in the wake of...Snowden.”

No need to debate what Snowden did here, but simply put, the tech community largely views him as a whistleblowing hero while the Pentagon sees him as a traitor.

Carter knows the two sides will likely never agree on Snowden, but they can agree to disagree. Instead, he would approach the tech community with this message.

“Let me try to interest you in the mission of protecting our country and making a better world for our people — and you should be interested in that, if you really want to change the world, you want to do something of consequence. Selling ads is not as important as defending a country.”

Carter still believes it’s essential for tech and defense to work together.

“You don’t have to do it for a living necessarily — [just] get in the game,” he said. “That’s how I got in. I was supposed to be one year.”

Carter pointed to a directive he issued as deputy defense secretary about the use of artificial intelligence in lethal weapons. “If I could go back, I’d change the language a little bit,” he said, but the meaning is the same.

“When it comes to the use of lethal force, which the people reserve to their government … that is a purpose of gravity sufficient that it’ll never be acceptable for there not to be a human participating in the decision,” Carter said.

Human accountability has to be part of weapons that use artificial intelligence, he said.


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Carter on Creating a Space Force

“I’ve never recommended that and I don’t recommend it now ... It heads in exactly the wrong managerial direction for space,” Carter said at MITRE. “What we are trying to do and need to do is integrate space into our operations. There’s enough segregation already.”

A Contract that Screams Great-Power Competition

It’s an $866 million deal to upgrade Cold War-era radars that detect ballistic missiles heading toward the United States — say from Russia or China. Here’s what we know about the SMORS contract (mmm, s’mores).

  • Northrop Grumman won the contract. Three companies submitted bids, Northrop, Raytheon and another undisclosed bidder. (We’ve asked the Air Force, but they haven’t shared)
  • Will a losing bidder protest? With nearly $1 billion on the line, odds of that are typically higher. Raytheon’s reaction: “We believe our commercial software-based approach was the best solution to sustain and modernize these critical sensors,” a company spokesman said. “We will wait for the Air Force’s de-brief to understand their decision and evaluate our next steps.”
  • It’s been in the works for more than six years. (Wonder how long it would have taken in the new go-fast acquisition environment?)

What’s the contract all about? The “sustainment and modification of radar sensors, providing depot-level sustainment services and modification projects for the Ballistic Missile Early Warning systems and PAVE Phased Array Warning system radars, and the [Perimeter] Acquisition Radar Attack Characterization system.”

About those missile detection systems:

Another Great Power Competition Deal: Lockheed Martin has received a $928 million contract to build an air-launched missile — dubbed the Hypersonic Conventional Strike Weapon — that will fly “more than five times faster than the speed of sound to overcome enemy defenses.”

Done Deal: Northrop Acquires Orbital

The Federal Trade Commission will require Northrop Grumman to supply solid rocket motors to its competitors. It will also make Northrop run its solid rocket motor business “separate ... from the rest of the company’s operations with a firewall.”

FTC’s three conditions for allowing the sale to go through are designed to keep competition:

  • “Northrop must make its solid rocket motors and related services available on a non-discriminatory basis to all competitors for missile contracts.
  • “Northrop must establish firewalls to keep it from transferring or using any proprietary information that it receives from competing missile prime contractors or [solid rocket motor] suppliers in a manner that harms competition.
  • Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of acquisition and sustainment, will appoint a compliance officer to oversee Northrop’s compliance with the FTC’s order.

The timing of the deal: Northrop Grumman CEO Wes Bush has repeatedly said that the deal would close in the second quarter. He was spot on.

Two Important GAO Reports

No. 1: Assessment of the F-35 Program. Congress should restrict the Pentagon from spending money on F-35s in a new “Block 4” configuration until it “provides a sound business case” for buying large quantities of the jet with all of the bells and whistles, the Government Accountability Office argues in its latest assessment of the $400-billion program. The report comes as the Pentagon is moving closer to entering full-rate production, buying more than 77 jets per year.

Some of GAO's recommendations:

  • Direct the F-35 program office to resolve all critical deficiencies before making a full-rate production decision.
  • Direct the F-35 program office to identify what steps are needed to ensure the F-35 meets reliability and maintainability requirements before each variant reaches maturity and update the Reliability and Maintainability Improvement Program with these steps.

The Pentagon is expected to make a full-rate production decision next year.

Something interesting related to readiness and improving reliability of the plane in Joint Strike Fighter-maker Lockheed Martin’s reaction to the GAO report: “We are buying parts in bulk up front, improving parts reliability, bolstering system diagnostic, enhancing system maintainability, and standing up regional warehouses to significantly improve parts availability, repair capacity and reduce costs.”

No. 2: Ways the Navy Can Avoid Shipbuilding Missteps. GAO has put together summary of shipbuilding issues the U.S. Navy faced over the past decade, which is note as the service now looks to increase its fleet to 355-ships. The opening summary is gets one attention: “The Navy set a goal in 2007 for a fleet of 330 ships. Since then, the Navy has: fallen 50 ships short, gone $11 billion over budget, experienced many years of schedule delays, [and] delivered ships with less capability and lower quality than expected.” Ouch.

Making Moves

A new commander for the air war in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria has been tapped. The White House has nominated Air Force Maj. Gen. Joseph Guastella — an F-16 and A-10 pilot — to receive his third star and become commander of U.S. Air Forces Central Command, (which is based at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar). Currently, Guastella is director of integrated air, space, cyberspace and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, at Air Force Space Command. No word on what’s in store for Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the current AFCENT commander.

President Trump has nominated Veronica Daigle of Virginia as assistant defense secretary for readiness. She is currently the principal deputy assistant defense secretary for readiness.