Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Sen. Angus King, and Rep. Jared Golden visited the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Bath, Maine, July 7, 2021.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks, Sen. Angus King, and Rep. Jared Golden visited the Bath Iron Works shipyard in Bath, Maine, July 7, 2021. DOD / U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders

Defense Business Brief: Hicks gives some insight into new Innovation Steering Group; The challenge in hiring shipbuilders; Outreach to small biotech firms and more.

Pentagon leaders are using a new Innovation Steering Group to take stock of many fragmented military efforts to bring new, cutting edge technology to the battlefield.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks discussed some of her efforts to make sure more military leaders know what’s happening in small innovation teams, like the Air Force Artificial Intelligence Accelerator, at MIT.

“Where we need to go next really is ... knitting that all together so that we have an ecosystem in the department that doesn't crush that ability to have innovation in small teams,” she said during a brief chat in Boston this week. “We want teams like that out and about, but we do need to have feedback loops; we do need to understand what those teams are doing to share lessons learned and to spread the innovation more broadly.”

The first task for the aforementioned Innovation Steering Group (which is overseen by the undersecretary for research and engineering) is “mapping that ecosystem [of] who is actually out where, doing what that relates to these critical technology areas, AI being one of them.”

Moreover, Hicks wants to hear the “great ideas” being developed by these teams. She also said she wants to have “mission goals” for these new technologies.

Taking stock of the shipbuilding industrial base. Hicks spent Wednesday at General Dynamics’s Bath Iron Works and the government-run Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Bath builds destroyers and Portsmouth repairs and overhauls attack submarines. The deputy secretary said she wants to make sure the shipyards are modernized and updated so “they can move with agility quickly through the repair work.” Part of her visit was to get an understanding of how they plan to rapidly update ship and submarine software.

Flashback: Former Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was also keen on shortening the time for ship maintenance, so more were available for deployments.

Back to Bath Iron Works, executives say they’re having a hard time filling manufacturing jobs. Since the end of 2018, the shipyard has hired more than 4,000 people, according to Jon Mason, the vice president of human resources. “That would suggest that we're having a level of success, but it has come very hard,” he said. “There aren't a lot of people available for hiring; even those that are available for hire don't have skills.”

Part of the problem: The overall decline in manufacturing jobs in New England. “We used to have shoe factories, textiles, more major construction firms, paper mills, and we could hire from that talent pool,” Mason said. “All of those industries I've just listed are gone. And we're the only one left standing in the state.” 

Emphasis on biotechnology. In Cambridge on Thursday, Hicks received briefings from entrepreneurs about pioneering work they’re doing that could improve troops’ health. “We are so reliant on foundational technologies that are usually—in many cases, and certainly in biotech most cases—being developed for other purposes, they’re not primarily about what we do at DoD,” Hicks said Thursday at The Engine, a venture capital firm created by MIT. “There’s a lot of opportunity, I think, to work with the [biotech] sector to help it … thrive in ways that are consistent with U.S. economic competitiveness and national security.” 

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