The Best Tech for Troops (Needs an Easier Path to Reach Them)

The Pentagon must keep lowering barriers for startup companies, especially in artificial intelligence and machine learning — and help them stay in the game.

Throughout my career as an Army officer and a civilian leader, I’ve experienced firsthand the result of the Defense Department's glacial-speed adoption of new and innovative technology and commercial capabilities. I’ve also seen many efforts over the past few years that have attempted to address this challenge. But my digital native nephew and his friends have better access to some cutting-edge technology than our military men and women around the globe. We simply must do better.

As a commander in Afghanistan over multiple tours from 2002 to 2011, I witnessed our young soldiers make do with dated technology that all of us knew was inferior to what was commercially available. In fact, it wasn’t uncommon to spend personal money for some pieces of kit that enabled better connectivity, like GPS, which is better integrated into smartphones, cars, and even watches than our soldiers’ own gear. Later, as chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense, I found that trying to expedite the bureaucracy often felt like a futile task. Bureaucratic process, reliance on legacy systems, and general risk-aversion prevented progress.

Despite recent efforts by forward-thinking leaders in the Pentagon, small and innovative technology companies still face too many barriers to enter the defense market. The Small Business Innovation Research program and innovation offices have opened up award money, but firms who are awarded these funds still have to stay afloat through commercial contracts, or find some way to turn the small award dollars into bigger contracts. More often, they find themselves stuck in the “Valley of Death,” where many promising tech projects fail to be integrated into large weapons development plans — what the Pentagon calls “programs of record” — and are not delivered to the troops who need them.

It takes a lot of effort, sheer willpower, deep connections, and a whole lot of money to survive long enough to make it through this process with the Defense Department. The journey out of the valley is a slog, during which many tech start-ups who have had a desire to contribute meaningfully to national security have bowed out. It is becoming more apparent that almost all start-ups that have successfully received significant contracts within a department program have billionaire founders backing them, and have been engaging with the market for over a decade.

Some leaders and new organizations in the department focused solely on promoting innovation have made a difference. Organizations like AFWERX, SOFWERX, NavalX, and Army Futures Command have improved and accelerated DOD’s access to the latest technology coming out of the private sector. But they are tinkering at the margins. None have yet to provide a consistent, viable path to lasting relationships between the broader private sector and government customers beyond the traditional defense industrial base. Until there is a real acquisition pipeline that can scale and deliver winning technologies at speed — leading to long-term and substantial contract awards — many small companies simply wither away as they try to sustain themselves during the timelines required to navigate the complexity of doing business with the government. The government needs to move innovation from the margins to the forefront. Nowhere is this truer than when looking at the national security community’s need to rapidly scale, test, and operationalize artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The AI triad — algorithms, big data, and computing power — is on the path to disrupt every sector of our economy and society. National security is no exception. The nature of AI technology requires consistent engagement between companies and the government from the research and development stage to deployment. In order to successfully field emerging technologies like those with AI, the DOD’s approach to collaboration must transform from a narrowly defined list of contract requirements to a long-term engagement that acknowledges the rapid pace of today’s technology and allows companies more flexibility. The capability to iterate and evolve, even as a company works on a single program, is critical. Technology companies are successful because they are constantly analyzing new, better approaches: locking in technical contract requirements without keeping some flexibility can hinder that creativity. AI start-ups have some of the brightest minds as their employees. The government needs to do better at learning how to work with that talent.

In order to harness these tools to their full capacity, the defense and intelligence communities must rethink their approach to acquiring and implementing cutting-edge technology. We need to continue lowering barriers for start-ups with great ideas, otherwise the status quo will continue, and our men and women in uniform will be the ones who have to make do.

Today, as co-founder of a national security consulting firm, I have the privilege of working with a number of companies, helping them adapt their successful use cases from the private sector to address national security challenges and contribute to the mission of defense. Our firm helps innovative tech companies understand, navigate, and penetrate the complex DOD and national security enterprise through strategic engagement and communication. By bringing best practices from military organization and planning to the civilian sector, we level the playing field of communication and coordination between government and private actors. Ultimately, we hope that our efforts will bridge the gap between these two sectors and make it easier for all companies to support our warfighters.

I also serve on the advisory board of an AI security and validation start-up, so I have some understanding what is in the realm of the possible. I am impressed. These entrepreneurs want to build companies, develop world-class products, and make money — but also have a positive impact on our national security. I believe it is on all of us who are involved — whether directly or indirectly — to help move our defense forward and look for ways to call attention to, help redesign, and drive change in the established processes, to the benefit of our warfighters and the nation’s security.

The U.S. government cannot afford to continue business as usual. The innovation successes at the margins must be scaled rapidly. Our entrepreneurship and determination are our country’s greatest strengths. Government should provide an acquisition environment that accelerates this advantage, instead of diminishing it, or we will see many more start-ups turn away from supporting our military, leaving them to address the emerging threat environment without the best tech.

Tony DeMartino is a founding partner of Pallas Advisors, a DC-based national security strategic advisory firm, and the chairman of the National Security Advisory Board of CalypsoAI. He is a former deputy chief of staff to the secretary of defense, former chief of staff to the deputy secretary of defense, and a retired U.S. Army colonel.