Pentagon Innovation Units See Positive Signs in Trump Administration


President-elect Donald Trump speaks on the USS Iowa during the campaign. (AP photo)Nearly two months have passed since Donald Trump won the presidency and his twitter handle has offered an unprecedented view into the future commander-in-chief’s thoughts on defense topics like the F-35 program, nuclear weapons, cybersecurity and Russia.

One subject he has not touched is the new Pentagon’s new innovation units like the Defense Innovation Unit Experiment (DIUx), the Defense Digital Service and the Strategic Capabilities Office. However, that’s not to say these innovation initiatives have not received some positive signals on their future in the Defense Department.

Leaders in these programs have made the rounds at public events to talk about the accomplishments made in the beginning years of the programs. Some have received criticism from Congress with language in the defense budget requiring Defense Secretary Ash Carter to provide a briefing on DIUx’s progress before the unit receives its full funding.

But Congress has followed that up with support for the initiative despite its foundation in the Obama Administration as defense acquisition reform appears to be one of the few bipartisan topics to receive support in the early days of the new Congress.

Trump has also taken a seeming interest in updating the way the Pentagon does business. The briefing he received on the F-35 program led to a string of tweets questioning how the program could fall so far over budget and behind schedule. Trump even suggested that Boeing provide a bid to update the F/A-18 Super Hornet to compete with Lockheed Martin’s F-35 causing the defense analysts to do backflips over the possibility of upending the most expensive weapons program in Pentagon history.

New programs like DIUX, DDS and SCO were all stood up to update the way the Pentagon buys weapons and make them more efficient. These programs were established to strip out some of the bureaucracy and make the Pentagon more competitive in the commercial market to modernize military units quickly falling behind.

Active duty military chiefs have also stood up in support for the way DIUX has improved acquisition. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley told National Defense Magazine that DIUX deserves more time to prove out their concept.

“It’s a very good initiative … because we need to accentuate and accelerate innovation for the applications of commercial products” for the military, Milley told Jon Harper of National Defense. “Let’s give them a little bit of space here, let’s give them some running room before we start breaking them up.”

The chairman of Carter’s new Defense Innovation Board who also happens to be the executive chairman of Alphabet, Eric Schmidt, met with Trump as part of the tech meeting the president-elect hosted at his Trump Tower in December. During the meeting Schmidt spoke up about the need to modernize government systems after he received a first hand look at Defense Department systems on a trip with Carter.

This is not to say these innovation units do not face risks. Plenty of uncertainty still exists over Trump’s administration and how his appointed leaders will support DIUX, DDS and SCO.

Trump’s selection of retired Marine Gen. James Mattis as his secretary of defense means the Pentagon’s top civilian leader will not have the connections to Silicon Valley that Carter does. Considering these initiatives received such high level support from Carter, it’s unclear how successful they will be connecting to new tech companies without Carter’s direct support.

During this transition, though, survival might be the most important sign of progress as it would give these programs the opportunity to continue to establish themselves. The more opportunities DIUX, DDS and SCO have to get new tech into the hands of troops the harder it will be to get rid of them.

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