U.S. Secretary of Defense James “Mad Dog” Mattis is visiting Silicon Valley Thursday and Friday, the first Trump Cabinet member to do so. He visits as China, Russia, and other potential adversaries are investing in advanced technologies like artificial intelligence, cyber capabilities and drones to compete with the U.S. military.
Mattis can counter these threats by deepening cooperation with Silicon Valley.
Savvy business leaders should see this visit as a lucrative opportunity. The Department of Defense’s (DoD) 2017 research budget is $72 billion, with nearly $12 billion for applied research and technology development – plus $122 billion in procurement funds. Mattis can write big checks. With the stakes this high, what should he and Silicon Valley say to one another?
Mattis should affirm the role of immigrants in America’s Armed Forces and in our nation’s tradition of entrepreneurship. He can distance himself from the Administration’s support for Republican immigration legislation that will cut legal immigration by 50 percent in the next decade.
This legislation doesn’t sit well in Silicon Valley. According to a nonpartisan study by the National Foundation for American Policy, immigrants have founded 51 percent of current U.S. start-ups valued at $1 billion or more.
Second, Mattis can be bipartisan in a time of domestic political turbulence. He can double down on initiatives begun by his predecessor, Ash Carter. These include the Defense Innovation Board, establishing the Defense Innovation Unit – Experimental (DIUx) office in Silicon Valley, and making cybersecurity a national security priority.
Third, Mattis should explain how DoD will evolve to become a better customer, a more sophisticated investor and a better research partner for Silicon Valley. He should explain how entrepreneurial incubators like Eastern Foundry or Dcode42 can help others navigate opportunities with DoD.
Mattis can also expand how DIUx is helping to connect Silicon Valley to the Pentagon. Armed with new congressional authorities, DIUx has already closed $71 million worth of deals with 42 companies in the past year alone. But DIUx can only do so much with about 20 employees in the region.
Mattis should scale DIUx to allow the military services to gain more exposure to Silicon Valley so the military can improve the competitive edge of its acquisitions.
What can technology leaders say to Mattis? First, companies should reinforce their support for the best minds being allowed to immigrate to the United States. Companies that do business with DoD could receive national security waivers to expeditiously import vetted talent from anywhere in the world.
Second, companies should urge DoD to give Silicon Valley difficult problems to solve quickly via prize challenges. For example, DoD could launch prizes to detect and counter Russian cyber influence operations, defeat emerging drone technologies or improve ballistic missile defense. Once prototypes mature, venture capitalists could make commercial investments to scale technology discoveries.
They should also ask how DoD can diversify from traditional defense firms to meet technology problems that Silicon Valley is best positioned to answer.
Today the Pentagon asks system integrators like Northrop Grumman to meet DoD’s high-tech software engineering needs despite Silicon Valley’s comparative advantage. This should change.
Mattis and Silicon Valley stand to benefit from this trip if they meet each other around shared interests and shared language.
Today China, Russia, and other potential adversaries are watching the United States and doing everything they can to enhance their technological edge. The Pentagon and Silicon Valley are two long-standing centers of American excellence. Together they can help the country stay secure and stay ahead.
Erik Leklem is a Truman National Security Fellow and former Pentagon strategist. Jonathan Reiber is a Senior Fellow at Berkeley’s Center for Long-Term Cybersecurity and former speechwriter and cyberstrategist in the Obama Pentagon. Both live in Oakland. They wrote this for The Mercury News.
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