In this 2019 photo, Joy Duer, a Duke University senior who took the Hacking for Defense course, prepares for a backseat ride in a F-15E at  Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C.

In this 2019 photo, Joy Duer, a Duke University senior who took the Hacking for Defense course, prepares for a backseat ride in a F-15E at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Vernon Young Jr.

How a Problem-Solving Course Could Help Rebuild Trust in the US Military

Let’s expand the Hacking 4 Defense program, which already helps hundreds of college students engage fruitfully with national-security problems.

As the Pentagon works to recover from its worst-ever recruiting year, it should broaden its efforts to increase Americans’ familiarity and trust with the U.S. military. One way it might do so is to bring its Hacking 4 Defense course to more universities and even high schools.

The Army has struggled the most, missing its goal by 15,000 recruits, but all the services are hindered by a general lack of trust in our government. Last year, only two in 10 Americans said they trust Washington to do what is right. Distrust is also bleeding into the military, according to a 2022 Reagan National Defense Survey. It suggested that perceptions of a politicized military led to a decrease in confidence in the institution.

Hacking 4 Defense—H4D for short—was founded in 2016 to make national security both attractive and real to a new generation through hands-on problem-solving. Launched at Stanford University and expanded to many other colleges, the course challenges teams of university students to find innovative and entrepreneurial ways to solve the Pentagon’s hardest problems. This engagement boosts familiarity, and, ultimately, trust among some of America’s best and brightest young people.

In our own work as H4D professors, we have watched our students join the military, start mission-oriented companies and non-profits, and pursue public-service careers in other federal, state, and local agencies. Wherever they wind up, they become part of a cadre of skilled innovators who bring uninhibited creativity and an acceptance of risk that is missing in traditional government culture.

So far, the H4D program has been offered at 60 colleges around the United States and has expanded to include many universities in the United Kingdom and Australia. Now the Pentagon and Congress should work together to bring H4D to an even more diverse set of universities, including community colleges, trade schools, historically black colleges and universities, and other minority-serving institutions. Tapping into broad experiences, perceptions, and education will expand America’s capacity to solve critical problems across the board. 

The program should also be configured for high schools. Bringing critical public problems to students allows them to see their own reflection in America’s future and its success. Along with traditional JROTC programs, the program adds another path toward familiarity with the military.

H4D could even be adapted to address broader, cross-sectoral problems across our country and society. From national security to natural disasters, energy, and the environment, our country needs all the innovative ideas and thoughtful problem-solving it can get. Common Mission Project, the nonprofit that delivers and expands Hacking 4 Defense, also offers Hacking 4 Diplomacy, Hacking for Climate and Sustainability, Hacking for Oceans and the Environment, Hacking for Local, and Hacking for Homeland Security. The opportunities for next-generation engagement and trust-building are limitless.

To achieve these changes, the U.S. government should develop a national strategy for innovation and entrepreneurship with H4D as its model. The president, working with Congress, should also commit multi-year resources to such a national effort. And to capture the talent in these “Hacking for” programs, the U.S. government should develop talent pipelines directly into public service—to include developing a National Security Innovation Base visa program recommended by the Reagan Institute at their recent National Security Innovation Base Summit.

No single effort can solve our talent crisis. But expanding H4D and making it a model for a modern form of national service could be a decisive step towards effectively competing as a nation in the 21st century.

Tom Nelson teaches Hacking for Defense in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He also serves as CoS at BMNT Inc and is on the advisory board of the non-profit Common Mission Project.  He is a retired Army colonel with 24 years of service.

Alex Gallo teaches Hacking for Defense in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, and he serves as the executive director of the non-profit Common Mission Project, which delivers Hacking for Defense in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Alex is also a fellow with the National Security Institute at George Mason University.