Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said “the future of our nation depends” on closer ties between the Pentagon and the private sector.
The Pentagon must strengthen its collaboration with the private sector to ensure the U.S. continues to outpace the People’s Republic of China and other global adversaries, a top Department of Defense official said on Tuesday.
Speaking at the American Dynamism Summit, Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks said “the future of our nation depends” on strengthening DOD’s innovation ecosystem and smoothing out bureaucratic barriers to ensure the department is effectively — and speedily — fielding the latest technological capabilities needed to secure the nation.
“Not only are we seldom innovation pace-setters; too often we can struggle just to keep pace with a dynamic U.S. private sector that continues to out-innovate the world,” she warned, adding that “with the PRC we are in a persistent, generational competition for advantage, and we have to double down with urgency and confidence.”
Hicks said this requires a renewed departmentwide commitment to “listening, learning and iterating to continually become better customers and collaborators with the tech sector” — an effort, she said, DOD has been more aggressively pursuing during the Biden administration.
For the past three years, Hicks said the Pentagon has shifted toward a “a comprehensive, iterative, warfighter-centric approach to innovation — recognizing we face an accumulation of challenges and barriers and there is no silver bullet that will lower them all.”
This has included the creation of DOD’s Office of Strategic Capital — which works with private capital providers to direct investments toward the development of critical technologies — and the elevation of the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit — which helps accelerate the development of commercial technologies for military applications — to report directly to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
One focus of DOD’s efforts in recent years has been helping relevant early-stage tech companies bridge the so-called “valley of death,” where many startups struggle to stay financially solvent as they work to transition from an innovative idea to actually prototyping and developing their product.
Hicks said this valley “can be especially treacherous to cross if you're new to working with DOD,” noting that the Pentagon’s “rules of the game have not caught up” with the private sector’s pace of development and disruptive approach to innovation.
“Our nation has a major comparative advantage when it comes to innovation, and for our military to stay the world's best, we have to tap into that,” she said.
Moving forward, Hicks said “more collaborative disruption will be necessary” for DOD to fully harness the capabilities of private sector innovation, although she cautioned that it will not come without its speed bumps.
"Our efforts are fundamentally resetting behavior for defense innovators, program managers, resource leaders and decision-makers," she said. "And even though it's collaborative, that kind of disruption can still be uncomfortable."