Mattis Embraces Pentagon’s Innovation Cell
The Pentagon’s innovation cell took another step forward following a public show of support from Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and a significant vote of confidence from the U.S. Air Force.
Mattis visited Defense Innovation Unit Experimental’s (DIUx) headquarters in Silicon Valley on Aug. 10 saying the unit will “grow in its influence and its impact.” It was the first visit from the Trump administration appointee after multiple high profile visits from his predecessor, Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Carter launched DIUx in 2015 to improve the Pentagon’s relationship with the commercial technology companies in hubs like Silicon Valley, Boston and Austin. The unit now has offices in all three regions as well as the Pentagon.
One of the most notable accomplishments by DIUx has been the creation of an acquisition process that can fund technology companies in less than 60 days. Typical acquisition programs can last years before companies receive funding keeping many commercial technology companies from even engaging with the Defense Department.
Initiatives like the Commercial Solutions Openings program were the reason Carter started DIUX. The Pentagon has since empowered it with special authorities to speed up hiring and acquisition decisions, according to a report by Defense News.
DIUx has the power to hire staff in as little as a day and the authority to execute contracts up to $5 million without having to go through typical Defense Department procedures, according to the Defense News report.
$745 Million Air Force Contract
DIUX has also shown that it has gained the trust of service officials for some of its highest priority acquisition programs. The U.S. Air Force canceled an air mission planning acquisition program with Northrop Grumman after the initial cost ballooned from $374 million to $745 million.
Air Force officials have since asked DIUx leaders to help the service scout and acquire software to advance the program at a quicker and more affordable pace. Purchasing software has long been a struggle for the services as they try to keep pace with modern technologies.
An upgrade in mission planning tools is seen as a top priority, especially after the head of the Defense Innovation Board, Alphabet Inc. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt visited the Air Operations Center at Al Udied Air Base in Qatar and found airmen spending countless hours planning missions on white boards. Schmidt and his team couldn’t believe the Air Force was still planning cargo refueling missions with a combination of markers and excel spreadsheets.
The Air Force has since utilized new software programs that cut hours out of process and free the airmen up for other tasks. This story is one commonly used to explain why innovation cells like DIUx are needed.
Despite the support from Trump administration appointees like Mattis, DIUx has faced criticism from the Republican Congress to include threats of reducing their budget. Those threats have not yet been followed up after DIUx has responded to Congressional concerns in both years.
The main concern Congress has expressed is the potential overlap of duties DIUx is fulfilling for the Defense Department.
“This question is: What is this office doing that’s different from what others are doing?” asked U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
DIUx officials have said its office provides reach into the commercial technology sector outside of the typical defense industrial base. Although in its first year, DIUx was criticized for not reaching far enough outside that base with contracts going to companies with a history of DoD work.
Before leaving office, Carter made significant changes to DIUx’s leadership choosing Air Force reservist and entrepreneur Raj Shah to lead the organization. DIUx has since issued $71 million through 37 contract since June 2016. Notably, the companies that won these contracts have also received an additional $1.8 billion from prominent venture capital firms.
“I don’t embrace it; I enthusiastically embrace it,” Mattis said of DIUx. “And I’m grateful that Secretary Carter had the foresight to put something in place to anchor the Department of Defense out there.”