USAF Looking to Silicon Valley to Get its Innovation Mojo Back


So the Air Force has finally decided to reach out to Silicon Valley in hopes of figuring out how a massive bureaucracy can attempt to keep up with the blistering pace of innovation in the cyber realm.

Senior Air Force scientists are "taking a visit out to Silicon Valley, meeting with the leadership in Silicon Valley of companies such as Facebook, Google and the like, to see how we can build bridges to them and get them to be interested in DoD problems and help us innovate ourselves into a solid structure going forward into the future," said Jennifer Ricklin, the Air Force Research Laboratory's chief technologist during an Aviation Week-sponsored conference recently. "We really are looking at what are the best practices to keep innovation and technology access in the Air Force alive and healthy."

The scientists will also be meeting with officials from Apple, according to Ricklin.

Earlier in her speech she noted something that's been obvious for  years now; the Pentagon has been left behind in the race to innovate new technology, a sharp reversal of how things were during the Cold War.

"It's no surprise that a lot of the technology innovation in this country in the last two decades has not com from the defense industry, it's come from the private sector, from the commercial sector, things like the smartphone, the pad, the tablet," said Ricklin. "We're looking to those types of areas to see how is it that we can incorporate that type of innovation into the Air Force and how we do business in the Air Force."

So yeah, nearly five years after it announced that it was diving into the cyber world with the intent of dominating the networks, the service seems to have realized that it needs the help of the world’s capitol of cyber innovation.

Needless to say, this is a smart move. The Air Force has long admitted that has lost dominance in high tech innovation to the private sector, it’s now doing something about that. The service needs to know what technologies and trends that cyber’s best and brightest are working on at a time when everyone from organized hackers to governments around the world are able to innovate new cyber weapons -- that can have strategic implications -- in a matter of days and for tiny amounts of money.

Still, I’ve got to wonder how well the staid culture of the Air Force (and the rest of the government for that matter) will mesh with the youth-oriented techie/hipster/rebel culture of Silicon Valley. The world of government and the world of the valley couldn’t be further apart culturally.

Here’s what Ricklin said when I asked her about this after her speech:

"I'm very concerned, I'm taking four days of my time with my boss and the Air Force chief scientist to go on out and see what's going on and to start to build bridges, this is just a first step," said Ricklin. From a financial standpoint, "they're not interested in us, they're making plenty of money. They don't need us, they don't care about us, they don't particularly care about the defense department, this is not where they're at. But, at some level, they might want to be concerned about the defense of their country. That's something that we all share. I think the responsibility is on our shoulders to try to adapt to their culture. The entire culture that we have in the Department of Defense is based on the [post World War II] military industrial complex . . . and things haven't really changed that much since then, it was developed for an industrial society that no longer exists and we're not even an information technology society anymore, we've gone on past that. So, in the Defense Department we need to realize that and figure out what can we do."

She went on to say that the Pentagon must be able to see future technological trends coming down the road from the most innovative companies and how these trends will shape society and how they can be used by the DoD.

"How do we bring that innovation and deal with these technologies inside DoD and try to bring them on as partners in the process," said Ricklin

We’ll see how this plays out. Again, it's a step in the right direction in terms of keeping up with the latest developments in the cyber realm.

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