Innovating a new era of American security

Iraq. Afghanistan. Syria. Ukraine. The South China Sea. Spin a globe these days, put your finger down, and you’ll likely touch on a headache -- or outright failure -- for America’s military, intelligence and diplomatic establishment.


Such troubles may not be on everybody’s mind in Washington this week as the presidential inauguration takes center stage. Yet in the shadows of the pomp, leading defense and technology thinkers will meet for three days at Georgetown University, determined to bring a new, innovative approach to dire national security problems.


The Trump administration would do well to pay attention.

At Georgetown, educators from six schools, policymakers from 15 government agencies, and executives from nine companies will gather to learn how to teach a new class that challenges students to quickly solve defense problems. They’ll learn a tool kit called the Lean Startup that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs use to figure out how to build successful businesses, in order to solve hard national security problems.

This class, Hacking for Defense, was developed with the Pentagon and pioneered at Stanford University last spring. In 10 weeks, student teams devised ideas to solve challenges such as improving the effectiveness of Navy Seal divers via geolocation, and automatically detecting humans on battlefield drone feeds. Four of the eight teams continued their projects after the course ended. Two received direct government support.

This is the type of unorthodox approach we need for national security. While the U.S. remains the world’s leader in conventional war, we no longer face conventional adversaries and traditional wars. Instead, our enemies and rivals, from ISIS to China, exploit our weaknesses in unconventional ways. Yet our innovative business spirit from companies like Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Tesla has not carried over to the battlefield. Increasingly, it feels like we are playing checkers, while our opponents are playing chess.

Our adversaries are out-innovating us with tech you can purchase at Best Buy. Non-state actors like the Taliban use household items like car alarms and wireless doorbells to create IEDs that kill our troops and cost us billions. ISIS uses social media, open-source encryption, and off-the-shelf drones to conduct terrorist operations. And states like Russia blur the lines between war and peace by hacking our elections and government databases.

We are not being out-fought. We are being out-thought.

Rectifying this situation requires change on multiple levels. In the past, we’ve forged new partnerships with academics and overhauled our defense structure to deal with new threats.

In World War II, thousands of our nation’s top scientists joined government-sponsored labs to develop technology to defeat Germany and ultimately build the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. In the Cold War, secret government-Silicon Valley partnerships pressed computer and electronic innovation forward to produce smart bombs, sensors and stealth aircraft that allowed us to outpace the Soviets.

These partnerships were accompanied by political action. In 1947, after learning the lessons of WWII, Congress passed the National Security Act, which created the Air Force, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and CIA to take on the Soviets at the dawn of the Cold War. The failures of the Vietnam War and botched 1980 Iran hostage rescue resulted in the 1985 Goldwater-Nichols Act, which streamlined the chain of command and created cross-service combatant commands like the U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Africa Command.

Thirty-seven years later, massive threats never imagined in those days have emerged. Yet we are still organized like we were before the dawn of the Internet era.

Whether the incoming administration and Congress will see wisdom in such strategic rethinking remains to be seen. But even absent such an overhaul, much can be done to make us more nimble problem-solvers. And that’s where the Georgetown class comes in.

At the heart of this is the "Lean Startup" process. This involves identifying the right defense problem through interviews with real people – uniformed personnel, policymakers, contractors and others -- then iterating solutions through a rapid prototyping process. Some of these “answers” involve technology, but not all do. This is the inverse of how defense currently innovates – develop technology, then find a problem it can solve.

The class aims to educate students – and maybe get them thinking about a career in government service. But it can also teach people within the Pentagon how to bring an innovation mindset to the military’s slow, expensive, often-ineffective acquisition process.

The class is expanding to 23 universities with sponsorship and support from 22 government agencies and nine corporations. With so many Pentagon problems and the right political support, the class could easily grow further.

Academia, Silicon Valley and the Department of Defense have successfully partnered in the past.  The recipe of forward-thinking government leaders harnessing the power of innovative outsiders is proven. We in academia are again willing to step up. Is government ready, too?

Steve Blank is an adjunct professor at Stanford who cofounded its class on “Hacking for Defense,” the battle-tested, problem-solving methodology runs at Silicon Valley speed to address critical national security problems.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.