Army Secretary: We Need to Open Ourselves to All Innovation

 Army Secretary Eric Fanning

Army Secretary Eric Fanning Susan Walsh/AP File Photo

When innovation serves the Army's mission, it should be embraced no matter where it comes from, Eric Fanning said.

Under President Barack Obama, civilian agencies and the Defense Department have made an unprecedented push for technological innovation from private-sector hubs across the country.

That includes imbuing government ranks with a mixture of talent—civilian tech startups 18F and the U.S. Digital Service and Pentagon counterparts at the Defense Digital Service—and emerging technologies from partners who may be unfamiliar with federal operations.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter pushed the Silicon Valley angle further last year, establishing—and rebooting—the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental and expanding the innovation program to Boston and Austin, Texas.

It’s not yet clear whether the innovation push to tech hubs across the country will continue under the Trump administration, but Army Secretary Eric Fanning said Thursday the Army must adapt to the tech realities of today or risk falling behind the innovation curve.

“We need to open ourselves up to all of this because technology is being developed differently and in faster and faster cycles,” said Fanning, speaking at the Defense One Summit. “We may need to change to get that.”

Gone are the days when military investment and development in technologies like GPS drove private-sector markets and technologies, he said.

Now, that relationship has more or less reversed, with companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Google, Amazon and others driving innovation and the Pentagon reacting to it. The Army, too, is attempting to keep pace, launching a Rapid Capabilities Office to “leverage disruptive technologies” and “expedite critical technologies to the field.”

According to Fanning, the RCO is designed not as a workaround to traditional bureaucratic hierarchies in the Army, but simply to “deal with stuff faster” in a “more agile, responsive” way. The office incorporates a mixture of Army personnel with agency and industry partners, and importantly, it places value on feedback from warfighters in the field. 

Where it goes from here is anybody’s guess, as President-elect Trump’s positions on tech and defense remain amorphous.

Republican administrations tend to lean heavier on defense contractors than Democratic administrations—Beltway contractor stocks skyrocketed after Trump’s election win—and some argue the Defense Department overlooked significant innovation from long-time partners in its infatuation with Silicon Valley

But Fanning said there shouldn’t be a distinction between where innovation comes from. If it serves the Army mission, the Army wants to make use of it.

“It’s not just Silicon Valley," Fanning said. "There’s a lot of creativity and innovation in our defense industrial base and we need to find better ways to partner with them."