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Industry vs Government Tech Innovation — Winter Is Coming!

By Commander C. Colin Supko, U.S. Navy Reserve

Advanced and complex technologies providing asymmetric power and advantage, once residing at the nation-state level, are now available to commercial enterprises, small organizations, and lone-wolf actors around the world. Future technologies increasingly will flatten global power hierarchies, forcing nation-states to compete against asymmetric actors. Industry technologists and leaders have seen the future and are working to chart its path. Government leaders are not.

A paradigm shift in mind-set and tech-buy-in within the halls of government is required. Government leaders need to understand and appreciate the speed of technology proliferation and its importance to national security. To be affective, these leaders should cut the red tape associated with doing business with the government.

Prior to the end of the Cold War, the U.S. government’s research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E) investments were double that of private industry and unmatched by its near-peer competitors. Since the Cold War, our nation has witnessed a steady decline in technological superiority at home and on the battlefield, which has led to the current dilemma and has induced a “do whatever it takes to get back on top” methodology.

Why is today’s government RDT&E budget no match for private industry? Because the real money is in building technology for the mass market and not proprietary point solutions for the government. Technology companies, faced with a choice between a single massive contract with the government for creation of a single product across five or ten years or shipping annually to a global market of hundreds of millions or billions of customers, have an easy choice. In recent years, commercial RDT&E investment has grown to four times that of the government ($400 billion vs $100 billion). Just six companies—Apple, Samsung, Intel, Microsoft, Roche, and Google—combine for an investment portfolio surpassing the money invested by all U.S. government entities.

Restoring American Power ,” a document released by Senator John McCain (R-AZ), states that 50 percent of the RDT&E driving the country’s national security structure now occurs outside the United States. The technology trends listed in this document include dual-use technologies that national security teams need to protect the United States: biotechnology, robotics, miniaturization, big data, advanced computing, artificial intelligence, and augmented/virtual reality. To achieve success, our government will need to face the following truths:

►   The speed of commercial technology advancement (software specific) makes Defense Department-derived technology almost immaterial. DOD’s long RDT&E lead times, acquisitions timelines, and fielding schedules are an archaic business flow compared to that of industry. DOD’s lack of first mover advantage necessitates the active funding of commercial dual-use technologies and an increase in purchases of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products.

►   DOD’s bureaucratic rules and regulations hamper innovation. Current policy focused on risk mitigation should shift to provide a path to quickly produce small wins outside the regular acquisition pipeline. DOD must educate and empower contracting officers to understand the risks associated with rapid acquisition tools such as “other transaction authority” (OTA) but not be intimidated by them.

►   Intellectual property ownership and license protections must be defined clearly and well-advertised to protect industry in any government-teaming agreements. DOD must help buy down the risk for industry leaders to be willing and able to provide technology solutions to the warfighter.

In addition to these principles, the U.S. government must find ways to scale new technology built by industry outside the government’s labs. As industry validates new tech trends and develops scalable products, the government must remove barriers to immediate use by the warfighter. These products, combined with other government-derived products, can and will lay the groundwork for the United States to increase the technological gap between it and near-peer adversaries.

The Department of Defense needs to look beyond entrepreneurial startups and hackathons to better understand the entire technology ecosystem; failure to do so will significantly diminish the nation’s security. A strategic adaptation of the innovation ecosystem developed by early Silicon Valley companies and venture capitalists needs to inform a strategic shift in the government’s technology business model. [Government leaders must think in terms of “risk.”] The nation has reached a fork in the road in terms of national security. Government leaders must intellectually tackle and weigh the risks of instituting the changes recommended here and the risks of not implementing them.

 A new and holistic approach will be required before U.S. military leaders are comfortable applying manpower and resources outside the program objective memorandum process. U.S. military and civilian governmental leaders need to step outside the bureaucracy to fully understand the impact emerging technologies will have on our national security. 

EDITOR’S NOTE : In a follow-on-article, the author will discuss how the government can overcome the obstacles outlined above and create a culture of innovation within the U.S. national security infrastructure.


Commander Supko is a two-time technology startup founder. His most recent venture, Patriot List,  is a safe and secure hyperlocal peer-to-peer market for members of the military, veterans, and their families. He has served as a Navy SEAL officer for 18 years, to include three combat tours in the Middle East, and currently is the commanding officer for all West Coast reserve SEALS at SEAL Team 17.

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