Technology and National Security: 10 Important Questions (and a few ideas)

Jason M Brown

Air Force CyberWorx courtesy of Colorado Springs Business Journal.

My job is to ask the most compelling questions regarding national security, and find a path to the answers. In the discussions I’ve had among the national security communities in the U.S. and abroad, the most common and relevant questions are related to technology. As a result of the technological disparity between public and private sector and the technological rise of geopolitical rivals, the Department of Defense (DoD) is awakening to structural problems and potential opportunities regarding innovation.

Over the last few years, that awakening led to the formation of the Defense Innovation Unit, the Defense Innovation Board, the WERX ecosystem, and the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (the JAIC’s website will eventually be I’ve been fortunate enough to work with each of these organizations and participate in their venues and activities to drive technological transformation within the DoD. In the course of that work, 10 important questions on technology and national security consistently emerged in one form or another. I’ve tried to capture these questions in a list below, while offering some quick ideas and references to related programs or projects.

I should note this is my personal observation, and is by no means a treatise or an exhaustive list of questions on technology and national security (I hope to not need a tl;dr). While I focus on DoD in this post, the questions below can certainly apply to other government agencies. Ultimately, I hope this is a useful resource and a catalyst for further discussion and research.

The questions below each support the universal question implied in the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which is: how might we outpace our principal rivals in innovating for national security? Addressing that question has led us to ask:

1. How might the DoD upscale its workforce by cultivating digital talent within its ranks?

This is an area where the DoD can shape society’s approach to teaching coding and other technology skills now relevant to every trade and occupation. The Air Force started the Computer Language Initiative (CLI) as a first step in that direction. The proposed National Defense Authorization Act for 2020 includes language from the Armed Forces Digital Advantage Act that will advance CLI across the DoD.

2. How should the DoD organize to create, develop, and deploy software and data?

Software and data are now the capabilities that matter most. One way the Air Force organizes for software development is by creating in-house software factories to ensure key programs benefit from user-centered design, Agile development, and the continuous iteration and deployment of code. On that note, the origin story of Kessel Run is a fantastic read. That said, success of these software development efforts will depend on the DoD developing a coherent data strategy.

3. How can the DoD quickly evolve underlying infrastructure and business practices to support software development and deployment?

Tech-savvy troops can provide a real competitive advantage if the DoD provides them the right digital environment to do their work. The Defense Innovation Board’s Software Acquisition and Practices Study shows the way.

4. How can the the DoD re-orient the defense industry toward development and away from sustainment?

Among the consequences of continuous conflict is the defense industry shift from technology development to sustainment. Reversing this will take a bold vision like Will Roper’s call for delivering a new fighter aircraft type every 4 years. This recent article unpacks this idea and warns the Air Force must overcome its corporate process and culture to achieve this objective.

5. How does the DoD step outside of its corporate process and culture to develop cutting-edge technologies with the most capable partners?

The Kessel Run story illustrates how the Air Force partnered with Pivotal Labs to develop software in a contemporary way. It offers a fundamental lesson in technology development, which is, changing a bureaucratic system requires you to frequently step outside of it. The Air Force is currently taking this approach with MIT to develop artificial intelligence capabilities.

6. How might DoD use artificial intelligence projects to build and strengthen alliances?

As a technology, AI is unique in its potential to fundamentally change the way we operate. Both our principal rivals and traditional allies understand that as much as we do. Building an AI alliance should be as much of a priority as delivering capability. On that front, allies are ready to move out.

7. How can the DoD ensure safety, surety, and ethics are at the forefront of capability development?

The right venues and projects can keep these concerns front-and-center. The Defense Innovation Board leads a monthly discussion on AI principles and ethics within the Pentagon, and holds related roundtables at academic institutions. Developing technology for missions such as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief can also drive the DoD to promote ethics, safety, and surety for AI.

8. How can the DoD better understand its problems to acquire the right technology?

Assessing the value proposition of technology solutions first requires a deep understanding of the problem. On that note, the DoD has to do a much better job at framing problems and requirements. The National Security Innovation Network is educating the DoD on this topic through Hacking for Defense, innovation bootcamps, and other initiatives.

9. How can the DoD ensure the right company, is developing the right capability, at the right time?

In the last few years, innovation organizations like AFWERX created venues to bring businesses in direct contact with problem stakeholders and user communities. While these efforts help address the question above, the increase of innovation events makes it difficult to share knowledge and obtain feedback for these efforts. It’s clear the DoD should apply the latest business intelligence and customer relationship management tools and practices to this challenge.

10. How should the DoD contribute to the innovation economy?

I believe the DoD’s relationship with Silicon Valley would have been very different had we not been engaged in continuous conflict over the last two decades. In my alternative history, Congress would have pushed DoD to become a serious investor in the technology sector by adopting the intelligence community’s investment model.

The inevitable “great power competition” and rise of the venture-driven economy has led the DoD to participate in the technology sector in a number of new ways. While the current level of participation is encouraging, it may not be enough. If we are to truly leverage technology for the benefit of our national security, we need to ask how — and at what scale — should the DoD contribute to the advancement of technology for our nation?

The views expressed are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force or Department of Defense.

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