The Department of Defense (DoD) has recently made public overtures about its goal to increase partnership with a wider swathe of private industry. Towards this goal, the Department is taking some physical steps—such as setting up an office in Silicon Valley to woo technology companies—as well as more process-based reforms. There are, of course, concerns that the DoD will be unable to reconcile some core problems that the wider private sector (outside the traditional defense contractors) have with the Pentagon, including overly burdensome regulations, intellectual property, the government’s digital surveillance practices, and profitability. In the wake of revelations about cost-overruns and failures of untested technology, in a variety of major weapons programs, it may be harder than expected to persuade both Congress and the tech industry to invest in an experimental relationship.
Fortunately—perhaps unfortunately—there is an upcoming litmus test of this new DoD venture. Having quickly set up an office in Silicon Valley, the DoD now has the opportunity to use it. Since November, the DoD has been trying to both update its Global Command and Control System (GCCS-J) and shift away from relying exclusively on Northrop Grumman for maintenance of the system.
The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) has said that it is seeking a “really good, disruptive system.” Parts of the current system are twenty years old, and DISA is hoping to use cloud computing, open source code, big data, and data visualization to significantly reduce costs and increase speed and access. Towards this end, relevant private sector companies can submit feedback through January 15th.
It is not yet clear whether the Silicon Valley office has been a major part of this endeavor, but it should be. The DoD’s stated goal of shifting away from exclusive deals with large defense contractors opens the opportunity for smaller, leaner private companies to become competitively involved in defense business. The Global Command and Control System reform is ideal for involving new Silicon Valley partners, as it is the sort of computer-based software and hardware environment with which many tech companies already specialize.
If the new experimental Silicon Valley office has been tapped for this project, the success of this particular technological reform will likely predict the successes of future projects. If the DoD cannot successfully partner with new technology companies to produce a more cost-effective, higher-quality communications system, then it is unlikely to convince new companies to assist with less familiar, weapons systems projects. If the concerns of the industry are enough to prevent them from working with the Pentagon on a project well within their area of expertise, then the idea of creating new relationships will either fail or take longer than expected. It may also be that the Pentagon cannot actually change how it operates business without more buy-in from Congress, leaving it unable to cut costs in this way.
Teaming with tech companies will also test DoD’s traditional contractors. How will they react? They may try to prevent new partners from working with the Pentagon and fight to keep market share by persuading the Pentagon that using outsiders is risky or lobbying Congress to maintain complex regulations that exclude or overwhelm newcomers. They may also try to compete with newcomers by offering their services at lower costs, which would be a win for the Pentagon.
It’s too early to see how this defense experiment will turn out. There are strong headwinds, but the opportunities may prove as large as the risks. Recent economic turmoil may drive previously reluctant technology companies to work with the government as a financial hedge , especially with new financial valuation concerns. This specific technology update may reveal how well the Pentagon, the defense industry, and Silicon Valley can play with others.