The Pentagon’s attempted tryst with Silicon Valley

May 4, 2015, 12:18 a.m.

Cemex Auditorium was filled to the brim on the morning of Thursday, April 23, with an audience eager to hear the recently appointed Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, deliver this year’s annual Drell Lecture (the Drell Lecture, named for the first director of the Center for International Security and Cooperation, is an annual public event addressing a critical national or international security issue). The audience knew Secretary Carter well—Carter has long been a part of the Stanford community, most recently as a visiting scholar at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) immediately before assuming his present role—and the attendees read like a who’s who list of the departments based in Encina Hall. But Secretary Carter did not come back to Stanford just to reconnect with old friends: He came to Silicon Valley with a mission to attract technological talent which can help the US government adapt and respond to the new range of threats it faces on the cyber front.

Secretary Carter outlined the new profile of threats the United States faces. The development of Internet technology has brought incalculable economic benefit to America and many other places around the world, yet our new-found reliance on Internet technology has led to “real liabilities.” As more of our world becomes connected to the Internet, the potential for harmful agents to use the Internet to inflict lasting economic or physical harm grows. The United States government seeks to mitigate that risk as much as it can, while balancing security measures with a commitment to maintaining the spirit of freedom and privacy that is essential to America’s character.

Secretary Carter stressed that a closer partnership between the government, private businesses and academia is crucial to keeping up with the threats we face. He cited WWII as an example of a time when this partnership was very strong, and noted the critical role that government defense spending has had in initiating and sustaining Silicon Valley as we know it. Yet Secretary Carter would also acknowledge that, at times, the dynamic between these three has not been so mutually amicable. He thinks that the bond right now could be stronger.

The main thrust of Secretary Carter’s speech came as he outlined his plan for “Rewiring the Pentagon,” the title of this lecture. This “rewiring” essentially consists of adjusting the means through which young people can work with the Pentagon, so as to improve the innovative talent it can bring on-board. The Department of Defense recognizes that young people today want flexibility, and are less inclined to want to be bogged down on a single career path. Thus, the Pentagon will pursue initiatives such as exchange programs and set-time fellowships that will allow people to “try” working on a government mission; the Pentagon hopes that some who try will like their experience enough to stay.

Additionally, the Pentagon recognizes that it is unable to offer the same financial incentives to its employees as would be available to a person with similar talent working in Silicon Valley. To address this question, the Pentagon hopes to be able to attract people through the strength of its mission—along the lines of being a part of something bigger than yourself—and the unique, complex challenges defense research offers.

In general, Secretary Carter seemed to offer a “rotating door” of sorts. Those with innovative talent can bounce around the private sector, the public sector, and academia. This type of interplay already exists a fair bit at the higher levels—Secretary Carter is himself a perfect example. Now he would like to extend this arrangement to greater numbers of people, fostering sectors that more directly feed off one another. Such initiatives by the Pentagon may open new types of job opportunities for Stanford graduates, amongst others.

Secretary Carter went on to describe in more detail his department’s approach to cyber-security. He outlined his objectives as defending DoD systems, protecting American civilians from cyber threats that could cause loss of life or lasting economic damage and developing offensive cyber capabilities so as to deter potential attackers. Intriguingly, this set of objectives sounds quite similar to the Pentagon’s objectives with respect to conventional threats. Perhaps, as was the case with defending our skies at the outset of the Cold War, the Pentagon will need to add a new means of defense to its arsenal so as to respond to a threat on a new front brought about by global technological advancement.

If it is indeed the case that the development of cyber-warfare mechanisms in the 2010s and 2020s plays a similar role as did the development of air power during the 1940s and 1950s, we may expect to see a lot more than exchange programs out of the Pentagon on this front; we may expect to see large-scale direct investment in technologies which help the Pentagon keep American cyber systems safe. Aspiring entrepreneurs, take note.

Contact Jason Lopata at jlopata ‘at’

Login or create an account