The outgoing first chief architect officer of the US Air and Space Force urged the Pentagon to lay off wasting time building everything itself, and use commercial kit if available and appropriate to upgrade its technological capabilities quickly.
“If the Department of Defense is going to compete on today’s global stage and maintain its technological edge, it has to ride the wave of commercial innovation,” Preston Dunlap told The Register on Monday. “If it doesn’t, it risks drowning under its own weight.”
After signing up for a two-year stint leading R&D and tech acquisition programs for the US Air and Space Force, Dunlap stepped down as CAO this week, three years and four months into the role. In an open letter shared on LinkedIn, he ran through his achievements and offered advice to his colleagues.
He asked them to fight for structural change to how the Department of Defense spends its technology budget. As chief architect officer, Dunlap said he helped manage more than $70 billion of the US Air and Space Force’s spending during his time. Instead of trying to create everything it can from scratch, the DoD should use more off-the-shelf components from commercial providers, where possible, to integrate new capabilities more quickly, he wrote. The same was true for commercial services, so long as they were carefully audited for security and privacy issues.
Dunlap listed a number of projects he was proud of, including achieving secure communication of classified info between devices via commercial satellites, shooting down a cruise missile from the ground using AI and 5G, and cutting kill chain timelines in a “critical defense mission” from 16 minutes to 16 seconds. That said, he faced an uphill battle fraught with “extensive technology problems” and “a number of institutional problems,” he wrote.
“I naively thought that resuscitating DoD with innovation and speed, solving decades-old unsolvable problems, and getting the warfighter tech they needed and loved would be enough. However … structural change is required … To borrow an analogy from the personal computer world, DoD suffers from an acquisition ‘blue screen of death’ that requires more of a repair of the proverbial DoD hard drive, not simply a rebooting,” he continued.
In short, the Pentagon should stop always “reinventing the wheel,” or risk falling behind in technological innovation.
Modernizing the DoD to better support newfangled capabilities like 5G and machine learning won’t be enough to make the US more competitive. The DoD’s internal culture has to change, too, although he recognized that this was a massive job, given the glacial pace of government.
Of the “structural changes that I made over the last three years” that he listed, “these only only begin to flip the script. Much more must be done if DoD is going to regrow its thinning technological edge.”
He pleaded with service members to stop bureaucratic infighting and focus more on delivering products to defend the country. “We’re falling behind the commercial base in key areas, so we’ve got to catch up,” he added to Bloomberg. Catching up will be difficult, however, if staff continue to “compete with each other, when [they] should be competing with China.”
The Department of Defense suffers from a range of technological issues, on top of procurement. Previously published open letters and resignations revealed employees had to wrangle with old, slow computers that would break down if they tried to use Microsoft Excel or send an email. Cellphone usage is also limited.
“Ironically as I’m writing this, I received notification that the phone lines are down at the Pentagon IT help desk. Phone lines are down? It’s 2022, folks,” Dunlap wrote on LinkedIn. The department desperately needs to adopt the “Silicon Valley mentality and capability” to overcome its technological shortcomings, he opined. More time and effort should be put into developing new products and hiring the best talent at a faster pace.
See the above-linked letter for his views in full. ®